When you’ve made a movie as great, and enduring, as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial it’s inevitable that any other film you create in the realm of fantasy, especially one involving a child, will be compared to it. So when I say that I liked The B.F.G. but didn’t love it, I don’t mean it as an insult. It may not have the cross-over appeal to adults that made E.T. so special, but The B.F.G. has moments of wonder and enchantment that only Steven Spielberg could realize.

Of course, it has a nearly foolproof pedigree. Roald Dahl’s book—not nearly as dark as some of his other twisted tales—has been a favorite of children for decades. And the director called upon his E.T. screenwriter, the late Melissa Mathison, to pen the screenplay. (The film is dedicated to her.)

The title character is a Big Friendly Giant who is spotted on the streets of London late one night by an orphan named Sophie, who can’t sleep. He is unaccustomed to being watched while making his nocturnal rounds and takes her home with him to his cave. She soon learns that he is a gentle soul who has been ostracized by his fellow giants because he doesn’t eat children! His mission, instead, is to capture and collect dreams in his ornate laboratory.

The visual effects in The B.F.G. are fanciful and beautifully executed, as you would expect. But the real magic is in the performances of the two leading players: Mark Rylance, the celebrated stage actor who took home an Academy Award for his brilliantly understated work in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Ruby Barnhill-Sophie

(Courtesy of Disney)

Even though his countenance has been exaggerated by animators for this role, his facial expressions are as distinctive and appealing as his voice, especially as he utters the giant’s unique vocabulary of gibberish-like words.

Just as Henry Thomas captivated us all in E.T., 11-year-old Ruby Barnhill is irresistible as Sophie, the precocious, well-read girl who not only makes peace with her captor—and tries to protect him from his ill-tempered fellow giants—but winds up taking him along on the ultimate British adventure: tea with the Queen of England (an amusing Penelope Wilton).

However, the pace of the film works against it. I wouldn’t suggest that a director as skillful as Spielberg adopt the speed of a video game, but events in this meandering story unfold in a notably leisurely way. The movie lacks punch.

I hope children will find The B.F.G. to their liking, in spite of this. It is a high-quality piece of work that creates a world all its own and showcases two gifted performers—a veteran and a newcomer. And if it isn’t among Spielberg’s finest, it can honestly be said that a good film from him is still better than many other directors’ best.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024