Melissa Mathison, who died in November at 65, wrote seven full-length screenplays, and four are classics. The last is “The BFG,” a gently spellbinding drama that captures the old-fashioned enchantment of Roald Dahl’s book.
If I praise her before mentioning director Steven Spielberg, that’s because the film’s magical tone derives equally from both. As she did in “E.T.,” she softened Spielberg’s natural sentimentality and kept him emotionally honest.
All four of her great films – Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” and Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion” are the others – have the same theme: A child in a seemingly idyllic world achieves something remarkable but must finally leave perfect happiness (and often innocence) behind.
The girl in “BFG” is Sophie, an orphan who’s plucky and stubborn and resourceful and blunt – yet also a bit vulnerable, against her will. (Ruby Barnhill, a 12-year-old British actress making her feature debut, shows all those qualities.)
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One night, she sees the Big Friendly Giant traipsing through London. (Mark Rylance voices the CGI character beautifully.) The BFG collects dreams from a magic grove, most of them delightful but a few troubling, and spreads them through children’s minds as they sleep.
Because she has seen him, he takes her to the land where all the giants live. The other nine are bigger and not friendly at all, and they eat human flesh. Sophie realizes the menace they pose, so she convinces the BFG to visit the queen (Penelope Wilton) and help her remove the malefactors.
Mathison and Spielberg never pander to us, even in a scene where the queen and her court – including three corgis! – let off green-clouded whizzpoppers after drinking the BFG’s frobscottle brew. (The campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles” thus becomes the second funniest fartfest on film.)
Everything here, from the BFG’s invented words to the idea that you can bottle dreams as they dart about like will-o’-the-wisps, belongs to a fairy tale. We accept this world without question, as we do in stories by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen – or in Dahl’s 1982 novel, which was published the year “E.T.” appeared.
Nobody gives the giants an origin story or explains why they eat us; that’s just what giants do, like tigers or sharks. We don’t find out why the BFG’s size and temperament set him apart from his crude companions; when Sophie asks his age, he says he’s as old as the Earth. As with E.T., what he is and where he came from matter less than what he does.
The film has a unity of vision that may only be possible when a director spends so much time with the same collaborators: 39 years with editor Michael Kahn, 23 with production designer Rick Carter, 23 with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, 42 with composer John Williams. (They met on Spielberg’s cinematic debut, “The Sugarland Express.)
Rylance seems to have joined that company. He won an Oscar last year as Soviet agent Rudolf Abel in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” he makes a 180-degree turn as the verbose, sweet-natured BFG, and he’ll have a significant part in Spielberg’s next project, “Ready Player One.”
Mathison worked with Spielberg just three times: She used a male pseudonym to write his segment of the 1983 anthology “The Twilight Zone,” the one about old folks at a retirement home. It could easily have been mawkish, but you remember its warm heart instead. Though Hollywood never fully figured out how to use her, “The BFG” reminds us what we’ve lost.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton.
Writer: Melissa Mathison.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Length: 117 minutes.
Rating: PG (action/peril, some scary moments, brief rude humor).