Late-period Steven Spielberg, like late-period Clint Eastwood, seems to have taken a workman-like approach to his films. At this point in his career, he’s directed close to 50 films, and he’s got it down to a science. He could have directed The BFG in his sleep, and there are moments where it often feels like it. There’s nothing really wrong with the film — it’s a solid B+ offering — but it also feels perfunctory, the kind of movie that comes off of the Spielberg assembly line ready to be packaged and distributed in multiplexes.
For those who haven’t seen five decades of Spielberg movies — and this is a kid’s movie, after all — the beats, the dewy eyes, and the other Spielberg signatures may not feel as familiar, but adults who have spent their lives watching his films may feel underwhelmed by more of the same in a slightly different package. It’s the kind of film that also feels a little too faithful to Roald Dahl’s source material, a film that recreates a book rather than adds to it. In fact, my son came out of the film expressing approval. “I loved it!” he said. “It was just like the book!”
I think that may have been my biggest quibble, besides the fact that it is egregiously over-scored by John Williams, who is on auto-pilot at this point. Like the first couple of Harry Potter films, it’s too paint-by-numbers, too concerned with replicating rather than creating. My son, who is one of those precocious kids who will turn to me and point out every single difference between the movie and the book, did so only once during the entire film. For those hoping for a new experience rather than re-living an old one, Melissa Matheson’s (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) screenplay comes up short.
It’s also strangely muted for a Spielberg film: He’s the kind of guy who goes for the kill when it comes to tear-jerking moments, but he lays those opportunities up on the green while he downplays other opportunities to inject much-needed melancholy. He plays it conservatively, sticks to the blueprint, and never colors outside the lines. He’s remarkably restrained, and it doesn’t suit him.
That said, Spielberg’s new muse, Mark Rylance, is excellent in the role of the Big Friendly Giant, while Ruby Barnhill is everything you have come to expect in the child actors of Spielberg movies. She turns in a splendid put-her-in-your-pocket performance. In fact, the entire movie is splendid. When it comes to Spielberg, however, we often expect more than splendid. We expect greatness.