Published in 1982, Roald Dahl's The BFG takes place in a sleepy alternate vision of Thatcher-era Britain where young children are disappearing from their beds without explanation. Newspapers write confounding headlines offering very little in the way of an explanation. Other royal institutions seem collectively unaware that the disappearances are happening in the first place. This is a nation with its head collectively in the sand.
That bone-crushing giants who live on the outskirts of civilization are doing the snatching is a reality too terrible for anyone to fathom. It takes the efforts of a tenacious orphan and the rogue "Big Friendly Giant" to stop the carnage, an operation that involves dream catching, language and the Queen herself. Did I mention this is a kid's story?
Without overtly calling attention to patterns of class division or specific immigration policies, Dahl's novel implicitly alludes to the U.K.'s rapidly changing national identity. Steven Spielberg's serene and lovely new film adaptation of The BFG doesn't shy away from this complicated issue either, using allegory and fantasy to unpack long-gestating social issues that now seem doubly important considering last week's Brexit vote.
The film begins with a trio of perfectly executed camera movements traversing the foggy "witching hour" of London. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gives each shot a sense of restless curiosity, first dipping down to hover over the River Thames before pushing toward the frosted windows of a rowdy pub. Farther down the road is a quiet orphanage where young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) maneuvers the confines of her state-run prison, stymied by insomnia and a distinct fear of shadowy boogeymen.
Rumblings from the alley below draw her attention to the window where she locks eyes with the scavenging Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). All of her trepidation seems to come true when his giant hand whisks her to his messy cave located on a lush rural grassy knoll in the clouds. At first frightened, Sophie quickly realizes that the BFG has kidnapped her to sustain his anonymity, but in doing so has also complicated the détente he shares with the carnivorous titans who occupy the same stretch of land. The status quo is strafed with ripples.
Spielberg beautifully balances spectacle and humor to consider the deep ramifications of this change. Sophie's relationship with The BFG evolves over discussions of language and perspective. Surprisingly, their difference in physical scale matters less than the size of emotional connection. All of this character development occurs under the threat of discovery by Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement), the menacing leader of the giants who has a nose and taste for human meat.
Visually, The BFG favors sublime moments of revelation, where wisps of color and texture help to expand the emotional impact. Audacious showstoppers akin to the eagle chase sequence in Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin are noticeably absent. Yet the film's modest and dreamlike quality puts the emphasis squarely on the characters themselves, specifically the ways in which they communicate and challenge each other to make a difference.
Narratively, the film eventually shifts from deepening these relationships to a more plot-driven quest to stop the child-stealing giants, a task involving a surreal visit to the Queen's (Penelope Wilton) mansion that would make Luis Buñuel giggle with glee. Along the way, Sophie and The BFG visit a majestic tree of forgotten dreams, a place where "all the whisperings of the world" live in harmony with nature.
Recognition and acceptance go a long way to solving the major societal problems of The BFG. Sophie's precocious desire to understand the "other" inspires her community to do the same. In a year where right wing nationalism has become a dominant and acceptable ideology, demanding to secure the physical and racial borders of old, Spielberg's defiantly inclusive fable refuses to cower in the face of such fear mongering. Brazen ignorance and rhetoric flail against the power of bright-eyed spirit.