In his movies dating back to E.T. and up to this weekend’s The BFG, Steven Spielberg doesn’t just consider the experience of being a kid — he illuminates what it’s like for adults to wade through the legacy and meaning of their youth. Spielberg has a fluency in the matters of childhood that winds deeply through his work, and his dedication to stories about children has produced a number of terrific performances, usually from kids that he hand-picked after exhaustive searching. It’s no accident that the famous “Spielberg face” often belongs to a child.
With The BFG focusing closely on another young protagonist, Vulture took a look back through Spielberg’s career to rank his smallest stars, some of whom turned in all-time great performances. With apologies to a few of the director’s great supporting child actors, including Desreta Jackson in The Color Purple, Cary Guffey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, most notably, Drew Barrymore in E.T., this list focuses exclusively on the young stars who played lead or focal roles in his films. It should be noted that all of the performances listed are, at minimum, very good — a testament to both Spielberg’s aptitude with directing children and the talent of the actors in question.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Lost Boys ensemble — Hook
The weirdest thing about Hook — aside from the fact that it looks like a middle-school play with a $70 million budget — is that the traditional Spielbergian child role is occupied by Robin Williams, then a 40-year-old man. But it feels wrong to leave the film off this list considering the sheer number of young actors that play a part, including and especially the ones who make up the Lost Boys ensemble, a platoon of children who essentially become a Greek chorus in feathers, accentuating the emotional journey of Williams’s Peter. While this is part of the reason why Hook wedged itself so firmly into the minds of kids who saw it at an impressionable-enough age to believe that they, too, could be kidnapped by Dustin Hoffman in a wig, it prevents any of the young actors from giving truly standout performances to rival some of the others on this list. Still, Dante Basco gets extra credit for playing Rufio in a borderline inhumane amount of eye makeup.
7. Dakota Fanning — War of the Worlds
Dakota Fanning’s toughest task in War of the Worlds isn’t surviving an alien invasion — it’s withstanding the force of Tom Cruise’s personality. War of the Worlds is a movie about fatherhood, not youth, so it focuses far more on Cruise’s efforts to protect his children than on the children themselves. Fanning’s main job is to look scared and vulnerable. To be fair, she’s great at it, and she absolutely kills the scene below, in which a pair of well-meaning adults try to drag her away from a battlefield, thinking that she’s alone. But even that moment is mostly seen through Cruise’s eyes, while his character tries to stop his teenage son from joining the fight. As far as Spielberg’s children-in-immense-danger movies go, this is his lesser effort.
6. Ruby Barnhill — The BFG
Make no mistake: Ruby Barnhill is terrific in The BFG. She’s every precocious little British child rolled into a neutron star of cuteness. This girl holds her own against giants and the Queen of England, all while credibly selling the fact that she spends the whole movie inside a computer-generated Keebler Elf tree. So, why the relatively low ranking? Though adorable, The BFG is rather dull, one of the rare films being made for children these days that doesn’t bother catering to adults at all. There’s no number of times Barnhill could’ve sweetly intoned, “Bee eff gee!” to a frowning CGI Mark Rylance that would’ve made up for that boredom. That she even comes close is a testament to her presence and charisma.
5. Jonathan Ke Quan — Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
It’s hard to watch this movie in 2016 and not feel at least a bit uncomfortable about the Asian stereotypes in play. (I dare not search the words “Temple of Doom” and “problematic” for fear it might crash all of Google.) But if you can manage to put the issues with the character and the film aside, Jonathan Ke Quan is a force of nature as Short Round, a one-boy whirling dervish of spectacle and wisecracks. He’s the perfect foil to Harrison Ford’s smartass Indiana Jones, and he comes to Indy’s rescue more than once, making him a different kind of character than the typical Spielberg kid. Plus, he gives easily one of the funniest performances in the entire Spielbergian oeuvre:
4. Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello — Jurassic Park
In Jurassic Park, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello perfect a certain kind of child-actor performance that appears in Spielberg’s films and disaster movies of similar ilk: They have to be incredibly scared all the time, but show enough resourcefulness and resolve that they survive at least partly of their own volition. Although Dakota Fanning gets to do a riff on this type of character in War of the Worlds, the peak example is in Jurassic Park. Richards and Mazzello run from dinosaurs, hide in cars, scream, get hurt, and basically carry the full weight of the audience’s fear. The scene in which they evade velociraptors in the kitchen is a master class in terror:
3. Haley Joel Osment — A.I. Artificial Intelligence
The task Haley Joel Osment faces in A.I. is a herculean one: He must be too human. Playing the artificial impersonation of a child is a hike down the Uncanny Valley that can provoke both love and hate, trust and fear, and/or belief and skepticism, but Osment is one of the best child actors in history precisely because he embodies the platonic ideal of a young boy while suggesting something tangibly other. His dinner-plate eyes and peculiar cadences do more to set him apart than any exposed wiring ever could. That otherness allows us to empathize with Osment’s David, even as we comprehend his parents’ betrayal. It also helps this ambitious film not collapse under the weight of its own ideas — which include such lighthearted matters as love, biology, Jungian psychology, and the human mandate — particularly as Spielberg follows them deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.
2. Christian Bale — Empire of the Sun
Sure, Empire of the Sun made us mistakenly believe that Christian Bale has the voice of an angel, but three decades later, his performance still holds its own. In just his second film role, Bale shoulders the emotional and metaphorical weight of Spielberg’s visually extravagant war epic, his arc a coming-of-age story on steroids. Bale has no trouble spanning the distance between waited-upon gentry and grimy POW; it’s the kind of role that grown men win Oscars for pulling off. Throughout it all, he must maintain the innocence of a child while working against the biases that come with World War II movies, where the morality is objective and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Whether he sung the song or not, Bale makes a very convincing choirboy.
1. Henry Thomas — E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Surprise! Not every role can credibly be said to represent the experience of childhood in aggregate, but that’s what Henry Thomas accomplishes in E.T. As Elliott, the first of Spielberg’s child heroes, Thomas enacts the archetypal experience of a lonely boy making a friend, a story as essential as any to the narrative of human existence. That the boy’s friend happens to be a literal alien just makes the whole thing that much more poignant. Watch any scene from E.T. — I’d suggest the one where Elliott cries over E.T.’s body (below), only to realize that he’s still alive — and you’ll see a performance spanning almost all of boyhood emotion, including humor, despair, confusion, numbness, joy, and misdirection. As with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, it’s hard to imagine a more empathetic and relatable actor playing the part. Thomas’s expressive everyboy face perfectly fits the universal nature of Elliott’s character, providing the connection that made E.T. one of the landmark movies in American film.