Few directors are as brilliant at capturing a sense of wonder as Steven Spielberg, the movie titan famed for such timeless masterpieces as Jaws, the Indiana Jones movies and Schindler's List.
Spielberg is also renowned for his ability to pull us into a child's point of view, showing us the majesty and terror of the world as a young person really sees it. Ahead of his new movie The BFG, out this July and starring newcomer Ruby Barnhill as Roald Dahl heroine Sophie, we select the greatest child performances from his classic movies.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The year: 1977
The star: Cary Guffey
The lowdown: It takes an especially skilled director to make us believe that a young child actor is responding to an alien invasion, but of course Spielberg is that man. His iconic 1977 movie is surprisingly dark for the most part, one of its most memorable scenes involving the terrifying invasion of a house that's largely sold on the basis of Cary Guffey's plausible reactions. Fun fact: when Cary shouts out 'toys' as a result of his character Barry's toys inexplicably moving around, it was in fact generated by Spielberg, off-camera, holding an actual toy up to his view.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
The year: 1982
The star: Henry Thomas
The lowdown: Young Henry won the coveted part of lonely, alien-befriending Elliot on the basis of his tearful audition video, in which he summoned up memories of his beloved dog who had recently died. This sensitivity carries over in the movie, the untested actor remarkably carrying the weight of the entire movie on his youthful shoulders and really making us believe in the heart-rending relationship between human and alien. Spielberg made the decision to largely shoot at the eyeline of his young actors, also including a very young Drew Barrymore, helping us empathise with them further.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The year: 1984
The star: Ke Huy Quan
The movie: OK, so in hindsight Indiana Jones' plucky Chinese sidekick does smack of stereotyping but there's no denying the infectious energy that Ke Huy Quan brings to the role of Short Round, clearly having an absolute blast at working on Spielberg's rip-roaring adventure sequel. Let's not forget that Short Round saves Indy's life on more than one occasion in this controversial follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes the character (and Quan's performance) more important than many like to remember.
Empire of the Sun
The year: 1987
The star: Christian Bale
The lowdown: Almost certainly the most accomplished and powerful child performance from any of Spielberg's films, future Batman Bale's memorable debut appearance is the heart of the movie. Adapted from J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, the story presents us with a child protagonist who initially resists easy sympathy, gradually maturing in front of our eyes as he's separated from his parents at the outset of World War II and incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp. The way 13-year-old Bale sketches a naive child's awakening to the horrors of war is quite extraordinarily subtle and emotional.
The year: 1993
The star(s): Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards
The lowdown: OK so strictly speaking, these guys might not give Oscar-worthy performances but frankly, could you do any better when conveying the sheer terror of a T-Rex bearing down on you? Joseph and Ariana sell us so brilliantly on the menace of Spielberg's ground-stomping dinosaur creations that it only serves to make the movie more exciting, nowhere more apparent than in the raptor/kitchen scene that's still as delightfully spine-tingling now as it was back in 1993.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
The year: 2001
The star: Haley Joel Osment
The lowdown: Given how we've already raved about Christian Bale's Empire of the Sun role, young Haley gives him a run for his money as a child robot in this sprawling sci-fi drama. So committed was the Sixth Sense Oscar nominee to the role that he managed the seriously impressive feat of not blinking once throughout the movie, further conveying the inhuman qualities of his character. But, as this underrated Spielberg movie (based on a Stanley Kubrick idea) demonstrates, it's the robot's desire to become a real boy that tugs at the heartstrings, Haley reducing us all to a blubbing mess by the end.
War of the Worlds
The year: 2005
The star: Dakota Fanning
The lowdown: Spielberg's return to creature feature mayhem is a good deal darker and nastier than much of his 80s/90s output – and we love it for that. His adaptation of H.G. Wells' pioneering novel stays true to the bleak, chilling tone of the story (if not necessarily its context), and one of the reasons why it scares so much is Dakota Fanning's emotionally fraught role as Tom Cruise's imperilled on-screen daughter. Looking her genuinely panicked and terrified reactions, it's not hard to believe in the danger that the invading martians pose.
Don't forget that booking is now open for The BFG so click here to get your tickets. Will Ruby Barnhill join the ranks of all-time-great Spielberg child performances? Check out the trailer below and let us know @Cineworld.