James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition (US - BD)
Gabe revisits Henry Selick's film version of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book...
James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) lives a loving life with his wonderful parents, until they’re eaten by a demonic rhino, and he’s forced to live with his evil aunts, Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley). Sponge and Spiker lock James in the attic and use him as their personal slave. James dreams of escaping to New York City, where his parents were planning on moving before their untimely deaths, and his dreams attract the attention of a mysterious traveller, who gives him a bag of magical alligator tongues. James spills the tongues at the base of a dying peach tree, which causes a single peach to grow to enormous size. One night, while cleaning the giant peach James reveals a magical entrance into the peach, where he meets a group of man-sized insects who were also affected by the magical tongues. Together they journey to the magical land of New York City.
In 1996, when James and the Giant Peach was released in theatres to unfair expectations from a young(ish) Gabe Powers. The original Roald Dahl story was a childhood favourite (as were most of Dahl’s books), and director Henry Selick’s previous film with Tim Burton as producer, The Nightmare Before Christmas, had reinvigorated the stop motion animation format, and become a rather unique cult item. I now realize director Henry Selick and his screenwriters didn’t actually have that much to work with, and that perhaps nostalgia had rose-tinted my memories of the actual story, which is actually one of Dahl’s lesser efforts comparatively speaking. The author adapts a handful of overused fairy-tale motifs without ever quite putting his personal stamp on them, and never really finds a proper climax. James and the Giant Peach was one of Dahl’s first children’s books, and looking over his resume it’s evident that he would recycle many of the book’s themes in latter stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. As an early crack at the formal James and the Giant Peach is just fine, but it isn’t the best example of a top author in top form. For better and worse Selick is reasonably true to the material, including its episodic format, which makes it less of a unravelling narrative and more of a series of short adventures that would probably play quite well in the now popular eleven minute animated television format (a James and the Giant Peach series would actually work quite well among Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon’s oddball line-ups).
It’s hard not to appreciate the film as a work of animation art, both in terms of design and the incredibly detailed attention paid to the animation process itself. Dahl’s already surreal story is actually made more idiosyncratic when re-enacted in plastic thanks to Selick and company’s non-literal take on the characters. Besides the angled, anthropomorphized insects, I’m most taken aback by the shark design. In Dahl’s book, if I recall correctly, the sharks that attack the peach are literally sharks, but in the film there is a single giant shark made up of anachronistic machine parts. There’s no reason for Selick to do this outside of unadulterated imagination. Literalists could take these flourishes as clues to the entire film being nothing by James’ depressed, escapist fantasy, but I’ve decided to be a little more optimistic in my reading. The animation doesn’t improve much on The Nightmare Before Christmas technically, but there wasn’t really a lot of time between productions, and there wasn’t a lot of room for improvement anyway. The puppets used don’t feature the most expressive faces, but their range of motion is quite expressive. The musical sequences in particular feature some great technical animation. The live action sequences are so Tim Burton-esque it almost burns, and have a vague made-for-television air about them. Dividing the live action and animated elements is respectable, and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired flat sets are a clever way to deal with a low budget, I just wish Selick would’ve taken greater pains to make the look his own, like he did with Coraline.
The film’s musical properties are probably the most concrete disappointment, whether we’re comparing them to tradition Disney animated fair, or Danny Elfman’s more unusual work on Nightmare Before Christmas. Perhaps all the songs are too indelibly Randy Newman for my taste, but I cannot recall a single ditty by heart even after half a dozen lifetime viewings. Newman clearly put some effort into his work, but his lyrics are too wordy and literal, his melodies are difficult to anticipate, and nothing he offers connects outside the exact moment they play. I’m frankly kind of shocked Newman got an Oscar nomination out of such mediocre work in retrospect.
It’s been too long since I’ve seen James and the Giant Peach on the big screen, but I don’t recall the early scenes being quite this grainy. I recall an image contrast between the ‘real world’ and the animated world, but nothing quite this extreme. This scenes feature generally more detail than the DVD version, especially in the white faces of James’ evil aunts, but the thick grain and depressing darkness keep things pretty muddied. More often than not this 1080p transfer looks more like a blown-up 16mm print than an untouched 35mm print. The disparity between these and the animated sequences aren’t exactly cavernous, but fans will likely be more satisfied with the purely stop motion stuff overall. Grain is a constant issue (and we’re talking grain here, not compression noise, or digital artefacts), as is overall softness, both of which I’m assuming are inherent in the source material. Certain sequences are sharper than others, and feature higher contrast, but details are generally sharp (look at all the little hairs on that peach) without any unfortunate artefacts. The colour palette changes a lot throughout the film, including some close to monochromatic chunks. Most of the colours are kind of dull, unfortunately, though the poppiest bits stick out nicely against the dirt, grain and general softness, specifically the neon green alligator tongue things.
As per the Disney norm these days James and the Giant Peach comes fitted with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. This is not one of the studio’s finest catalogue release efforts, but doesn’t feature any humungous problems worth skipping the release over either. The centre channel on this track is inconsistent in terms of volume, specifically where dialogue is concerned. The dialogue is also generally too loud on the mix in comparison to the other elements, and features some minor distortion on the highest levels. The stereo and surround channels get in on the action more often than I expected. There aren’t many ambient sounds during dialogue heavy sequences, but the action heavy set pieces feature plenty of aggressive directional and immersive qualities. Prime examples include the scene where the peach rolls down the hill and into the ocean, the shark attack (which ends in a pretty massive boom), the pirate fight (which features characters being thrust across screen, and plenty of underwater echoes), and the effects heavy storm-rhino attack. Randy Newman’s music is a nearly unflappable aural element, filling just about every ounce of the overall soundtrack, and standing in for natural ambience at every turn. The sung moments are reasonably balanced (though the dialogue volume levels continue to be inconsistent), but the bulk of the score is presented rather softly in the stereo channels.
The only new extra offered up for this ‘Special Edition’ Blu-ray release is the ‘Spike the Aunts Game’, which is based on the brief post credit gag. The object of the game is to spike the evil aunts in the bottom with a metal rhino. Each spike makes them spin faster and the better the player measures the time between button-mashing the stronger the spike will be. It’s not very fun, and each game only lasts thirty seconds. The original DVD features are included on their own sub menu, and include a brief production featurette/EPK (04:30, SD), ‘Good News’ music video (02:30, SD), a still gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.
James and the Giant Peach is an artistic achievement, like all of Henry Selick’s films are on some level (yes, even, shudder, Monkey Bone), and is a fun film to revisit every once and a while, but isn’t magical, and is woefully easy to forget. Videophiles will likely be disappointed with this grainy, soft, and occasionally flat out dirty looking transfer, but I can’t honestly say it isn’t the intended look, at least partially. The DTS-HD track suffers some minor inconsistencies all its own, but is generally pretty impressive. Despite the special edition title the extras don’t amount to much more than the original DVD’s EPK, a music video, trailers, and the added fun of a not very fun game.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may not be suitable for children
Release Date: 3rd August 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Spike the Aunts Game, Behind the Scenes, Good News Music Video, Trailer, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Henry Selick
Cast: Paul Terry, Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Jane Leeves, Miriam Margolyes, David Thewlis, Joanna Lumley
Genre: Adventure, Animation and Musical
Length: 79 minutes
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