August 9, 2010

When Henry Selnick’s James and the Giant Peach was released it was neither fish nor fowl. In 1996 the Walt Disney Company was still in the midst of the animation renaissance – even the product was waning – but they didn’t know exactly what to do with stop-motion animation. A Nightmare Before Christmas was modestly successful (and has since proved exceptionally remunerative), and likely they were already in production on James and the Giant Peach when that came out (Stop motion takes years, Selnick says they were on this for at least three). But the film didn’t seem a winner to the mouse house, and so they put it out in April and it died a quick death. But Henry Selnick’s film deserved better, and deserves better than Disney’s half-hearted Blu-ray release. The story of an orphaned boy (Paul Terry), and the magical Peach that takes him on a high seas adventure with a handful of insects (voiced by Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, David Thewlis, Miriam Margolyes, Jane Leeves and Simon Callow) is a fine children’s entertainment. My review of the James and the Giant Peach Blu-ray follows after the jump.

James (Terry) had parents who loved him, but they are killed – as the narrator (Pete Postlethwaite) tells us – by a wild rhinoceros. He is forced to live with his aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Margolyes) functioning as a slave, and barely fed. One day he gets a present from the narrator, a bag of 1,000 crocodile tongues boiled in the skull of a dead witch for twenty days and a number of other creepy-crawly things. He drops the bag, but in doing so creates a giant peach on one of his aunt’s decrepit trees. The aunts turn it into a tourist trap, but one night James breaks into the peach and finds a number of insects hiding from his aunt. There’s a prissy musical grasshopper (Callow), a nervous earthworm (Thewlis), a New York toughie Centipede (Dreyfuss), a silky but dangerous spider (Sarandon), an old-lady ladybug (Jane Leeves), and a daft glow-worm (Margolyes). They realize they’re all in together as peach makes its way to the ocean, with the goal of going to New York.

James has a map, but first they have to find a way to steer, so they lasso so seagulls, and in doing so have to fight off a mechanical shark. The Centipede says he knows how to pilot a vessel, but his experience comes mostly from living in a National Geographic magazine. As becomes obvious, it’s all about the disparate group coming together to work as a team.

Running a brief 79 minutes, the film is charming while keeping the fascinating darkness of Dahl. The fun of the film is the stop motion sequences, which – like all stop motion and Ray Harryhausen before – is all about the joy in being sucked into the detail and scope of something so lovingly handcrafted. And that’s where the film works like gangbusters. Though it doesn’t achieve the greater successes of other “classic” animated movies – it feels very lightweight – it’s the sort of film that seems good to have around for variety when dealing with kids. But it’s also interesting that almost half the film is live action. I don’t know whose decision this was – and it works fine – but you can feel there are a number of compromises, including the use of Randy Newman’s music for the film (just like the success of Toy Story!). Nothing hurts the film per se, but Selnick’s next film Coraline feels more like a complete thought.

And as for Disney’s Blu-ray release, the transfer is awkward to say the least. Selnick shot the live action sections of the film in a gauzy light – like a cloth is in front of the camera at all times, and there’s a lot of grain – and this Blu-ray doesn’t appear to be a real remastering for the format. The stop motion sequences look best as it isn’t as stylized, and you can really focus in on the craft of the format. The audio is a fine DTS-HD 5.1 track and it’s got some fun surrounds. Since the previous DVD (because the film is in 1.66:1 widescreen) was non-anamorphic, this is a step up in all ways. But it doesn’t look like they involved anyone from the production in porting this to HD, which is all the more apparent in the supplements as the only new feature is a video game where you make a rhino poke the aunts in their hindquarters. Otherwise, the supplements are ported from the meager extras on the original DVD, which include a making of (5 min.) a music video, a still gallery and a trailer (which isn’t even in anamorphic). A DVD copy of the film is also included.

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