Tuesday, July 21, 2009

James and the Giant Peach (USA, 1996)

(Trailer.) Three years after having his contribution to the fabulous stop-motion animation film A Nightmare before Christmas (1993/trailer) as director be totally eclipsed by Tim Burton's producer credit, Henry Selick returned with this film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's story of the same name. The actual book was first published in 1961, and supposedly Dahl himself was loath to have it made into a film, so it is hardly surprising that the good man had to die first (in 1990) before could Disney swoop down to make a film of it.
But to give Disney credit where credit is due (and Selick, too, of course), at least they did not totally whitewash and remove the occasionally macabre and scary content of the story for a G rating. Instead the book, which is number 56 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books, was converted into a technical and visual marvel that, although nicely moral, still has some right proper scares and mildly grisly aspects—enough, at least, to earn a PG rating. And thus, much like A Nightmare before Christmas, which was also a PG film and is comparable in its balance of morals and scares, James & the Giant Peach proved to be less than majorly successful at the box office. (As to be expected when the music sucks, however, the score got nominated for an Oscar.)
A shame really, for both films are truly exceptional treats: visually fascinating filmic adventures that are sweet yet startling, and funny and sad, but never boring for either a child or adult. True, at least in the case of James & the Giant Peach, the musical interludes (written mostly by Randy Newman) are unnecessary, unexceptional and forgettable (with the exception of Grasshopper's violin interlude in which he plays—according to IMDB—Bach's Partita for Violin solo No 3 in E major, BWV 1006: 3rd movement, Gavotte en rondeau), but even during Newman's pointless and second-rate tra-la-la-la songs, the stop-motion animation is such a visual treat that one gladly suffers the music just to see the figures move.
It is tempting to say that the stop-motion animation of James & the Giant Peach puts Ray Harryhausen to shame, but seeing that he is both the Great Godfather of the technique and his films are still enjoyable and masterful feats today, let us just say that Selick actually manages to take all that Harryhausen ever managed to do one step further. Had the Great Master been around to see this film (or A Nightmare before Christmas, for that matter), he would have undoubtedly felt great pride in seeing what his talents has wrought a generation or two later, at a time when his time-consuming technique had long been relegated to the mothballs and been replaced by CGI. (Although, possibly, he would have been even more proud about Selick’s next film Coraline (2009/trailer), which finally truly proves that Selick is not simply a reflection of Tim Burton's production and taste but that the odd vision represented in his films is truly his own.)
James & the Giant Peach is not purely stop-motion. The stop-motion sequence is that of James’ adventures while within the peach; it is framed at both the beginning and end by live-action sequences. The art direction of the live action scenes, particularly the first one, is rather reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but in all truth the transition between the two styles is a bit jarring—especially at the end of the film. But special credit must be given to the presentation of James' two horrid aunts, Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973/trailer) and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes, who played the twins Therlma & Selma in Plots with a View (2002/trailer)): Unbelievably horrid during the first interlude, in the second they have the full appearance of vampiric, walking dead—they are truly as frightening as they are funny.
The plot starts oh-so idyllic, with the young James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) living happily with his fab parents by the seaside. They all plan a wonderful trip together to NYC, but then the rhinoceros comes and eats his parents and the orphaned lad is sent to live with his evil aunts Spiker and Sponge who treat him like a slave and feed him fish heads, if anything. Given a bag of magic crocodile tongues by a mysterious old man (Pete Postlethwaite), he accidentally drops them at the foot of a dead peach tree. A peach the size of a house does grow, and his greedy aunts use it as a money-making tourist attraction. One night, in hunger, James takes a bite and ingests a magic crocodile tongue, whereupon he can enter the magic peach and meet the insect inhabitants: Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), Earthworm (David Thewlis) and Glow-worm (Miriam Margolyes, again). The peach ends up rolling down the hill and into the ocean, and thus starts the adventures of all the peach inhabitants. The rag-tag groups succeeds at their goal to reach NYC despite the seemingly insurmountable dangers faced, including living skeleton pirates—including both a "Skellington" and a bone Donald Duck—and a mechanical shark. But no sooner do they arrive than do all the insects seemingly meet their demise at the hooves of the raging rhinoceros that killed James' parents, but the Aunts arrive to lay claim to both the peach and their unwilling slave…
Oh yes, and the moral of the story: Believe and yourself and in friendship.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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