Few storytellers in Hollywood have the childlike enthusiasm of Steven Spielberg. He made us watch the skies with fancy instead of fear. He made us pull on our father’s fedoras and tear out the front door in search of adventure. He even knew that a time would come when we wouldn’t want to do that anymore. Twenty-five years ago, he dared us to contemplate the idea that Peter Pan himself could grow-up.
But what if it’s not just Peter. What if we all grew-up? What if we stopped believing in aliens, or wearing that fedora, or wishing to fly? And what if right that moment, a giant arrived out of the past?
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is an orphan in London who one night is pulled from her orphanage bed by The Big Friendly Giant (or “The BFG” for short). BFG (voiced and mo-capped by Mark Rylance) takes Sophie with him to Giant Country – a secret and magical place off the English coast in an attempt to keep her hushed about the fact that she’d seen him in the flesh. Once in Giant Country, The BFG lulls Sophie to sleep and implants a nightmare into her slumber about the folly of trying to escape – specifically, that a bigger giant will eat her.
When she wakes from the nightmare, she questions The BFG about it, and he confesses that he deliberately scared her in the hopes of keeping her safe. He is actually the runt of the litter, and if any of the other (much bigger) giants happened to find her, they would eat her for sure. He implores her to stay out of sight and stay safe. When Sophie agrees to do as The BFG says, an unlikely kinship begins to grow.
This kinship prompts The BFG to open-up to Sophie about just what it is he does: He catches dreams. He takes them from a special spot in this magical land, mixes them just-so, and then imparts them into the sleeping minds of children all around England. The dreams bring the children great joy, which in-turn brings The BFG great joy.
During one such encounter, The BFG even became close with the recipient of one of his dreams, but the other giants didn’t take too kindly to the visitor. His fate weighs on The BFG, and he dearly wants to keep Sophie from a similar destiny.
In the hopes of saving her own neck, and keeping England safe from the bigger giants, Sophie suggests The BFG enlist the help of the British authorities. She clearly remembers the nightmare that helped her understand the danger she was in, and thinks that is more humans had to endure that nightmare, they might be willing to lend a hand.
So it was that armed with a few sweet dreams and a few terrible nightmares, young Sophie and her Big Friendly Giant returned to the land of humans with the hopes of keeping it safe from dangers they didn’t even know lurked just outside their borders.
The challenge of THE BFG is twofold. The film requires faith, and it requires imagination.
The faith that is present in THE BFG is the unwavering faith of a child. By nature, children are not cynical, they are not pessimists. If you tell them that a woman will slip them a dollar under their pillow in exchange for a tooth, they will believe you. Nevermind that for all sorts of reasons, that story makes so little sense. The BFG asks that Sophie trust him, and later that England itself trust him. He doesn’t lay out logic, doesn’t go through a plan point-by-point. He just says “I know what to do – come with me”
This film, and the story that it comes from, are very much the same way. It’s not interested in an origin story, nor complex motivation. It just is. Giants exists, some want to eat us, one is consumed by dreams and nightmares. Most of us would want more, but childlike faith would be able to take that and run. That faith can her “a giant is coming” and cower under a blanket. Or “want to ride the giant’s shoulders?” and light up like Christmas. Sophie has it, our hero has it. Many of us do not (even many children).
Then there’s the imagination that this film demands. It demands that we be able to imagine a world where a giant collects dreams. We need to imagine that little balls of light are all it takes; that they somehow contain the cosmic chemistry to affect what we see – what we imagine – when we sleep. Can you see a glowing ball and imagine a nightmare? Can you see an unmarked spot on a map and imagine an island? Can you see a bubbly drink and imagine a delightful feeling in your tummy?
Maybe not, because we all have outgrown fairy tales and that’s very much the problem with stories and movies like THE BFG. They have no inherent problem within them, but with every passing year they require an ability for their audience to let the mind wander that we seem less and less capable of. We cannot play ‘fort’ anymore, cannot hum nonsense songs to ourselves, cannot believe that there is a dragon that lives in the pond down in the park. We need properties, screens, produced by corporations and presented by famous faces.
The faith and imagination that drips from THE BFG is a throwback to days gone by. Thirty years ago, this would have slayed. Fifty years ago, it would have ruled. In 2016 though, it requires the sort of pure imagination that most aren’t capable of tapping into anymore. That’s not on the film – this warm, wonderful, magical film. That’s on us. Once upon a time we saw a dodgy brown creature made from clay and chicken wire and we gasped “alien!”. Now we see an equally dodgy rendering of a face with 1’s and 0’s and mutter “uncanny valley”. That’s not on the film – that’s on us and our inability to believe in it.
THE BFG is up for the challenge if we are. I was up for the challenge, but I fear many won’t be. We have all grown too big for the nursery. Were Peter Pan to fly in tonight, he might be greeted by a spool, a needle, and a note reading “Binge-watching Game of Thrones; Sew it on yourself”