James and the Giant Peach

Director: Henry Selick
Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Bloom (based on the book by Roald Dahl)
Stars: Simon Callow (Grasshopper), Richard Dreyfuss (Centipede), Jane Leeves (Ladybug), Joanna Lumley (Aunt Spiker), Miriam Margolyes (Aunt Sponge / The Glowworm), Pete Postlethwaite (Old Man), Susan Sarandon (Miss Spider), Paul Terry (James), David Thewlis (Earthworm), Steven Culp (James’ Father), Mike Starr (Beat Cop), Susan Turner-Cray (James' Mother)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1996
Country: U.S. / U.K.
James and the Giant Peach Blu-Ray
James and the Giant PeachJames and the Giant Peach, which was adapted from Roald Dahl’s popular 1961 book, feels like a story being made up on the spot. It is clearly constructed of the most fundamental elements of children’s fantasy literature--the scrappy orphan hero, evil step-parents (in this case, a pair of vicious aunties), anthropomorphic animals (or, in this case, insects), and a sense of magic and wonderment that makes anything possible--which Dahl whipped into a frothy stew of giddy nonsense that has spoken to generations of children. In turning the book into a film, something that Dahl had apparently resisted numerous times while he was alive, director and stop-motion animation genius Henry Selick, who had recently directed Tim Burton’s holiday fantasia The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), opted for a mixture of live-action and stop-motion animation that is heavy on fever-dream spectacle, but fairly shallow in terms of character.

The story starts with young James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) living an idyllic life by the sea with his loving mom and dad (Susan Turner-Cray and Steven Culp), which Selick emphasizes with gauzy soft focus photography that is abruptly and violently upended when we are suddenly informed that James’s parents were killed by a rhinoceros. (The sheer perversity of this tragedy, not to mention the speed with which it is introduced and then left behind, is a sign of things to come.) His parents’ untimely demise is compounded by the fact that James is sent to live with his bitter and conniving aunts Sponge (Mirian Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley), who live in a decrepit house high atop a dead hill and mistreat James horribly. One day a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a bag of magic crocodile tongues, which he accidentally spills, causing an otherwise dead tree to sprout a juicy peach that grows and grows and grows until it is the size of a house. Sponge and Spiker see it as a golden money-making opportunity, which they ballyhoo to the hilt.

The movie shifts from stylized live action to stop-motion animation when James climbs up inside the peach and meets an oddball family of insects, each of whom has a distinct personality that tends to conflict with the others. Jane Leeves voices a refined, polite Ladybug, while Richard Dreyfuss digs deep into an exaggerated Brooklyn accent for the cigar-chomping, big-talking Centipede. Simon Callow’s Grasshopper is an erudite intellectual, Susan Sarandon’s Miss Spider is a saucy French woman, and Miriam Margolyes’s Glowworm is a relatively silent matriarch. James immediately fits right in (for all of Dahl’s focus on outsiders, his stories usually culminate with the creation of a makeshift family), especially after the peach falls off its tree, rolls through the town, and winds up in the Atlantic Ocean, which James takes as a sign that he should follow his parents’ dream of going to New York City. The story only gets more bizarre from there, eventually involving a mechanical shark, the peach flying through the air after being tethered to sea gulls, and an underwater adventure in which Centipede must retrieve a compass from a sunken ship full of ghostly skeletons.

As he did with The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick leads a team of expert animators who make the stop-motion animation (which is expanded with cartoonish CGI in the background) amazingly fluid, even as the characters themselves remain highly stylized (the fingerprints of Tim Burton, who co-produced, are also evident in the film’s mixture of scary and sweet). Selick is clearly attempting to play with different levels of unreality, and the entire film is infused with a sense of cinematic playfulness that never once attempts to convince us that anything is “real.” Even the live action sequences are clearly the products of artifice, a studio-bound projection of James’s dreams and imagination. These sequences tend be a bit clunky, as Selick is clearly less comfortable with live actors and full-scale sets than he is with scaled models and armatures, but he still evinces a clever style that heightens each scene to the point of near absurdity, whether it be the Universal Studios-style Gothicism of the aunts’ foreboding abode or the MGM musical evocation of the Big Apple in the 1930s, awash in neon signs and sharp-dressed extras. The detail and sources of these loving homage will likely go over smaller children’s heads, but its sense of outsized wonderment is universal and is almost enough to compensate for Randy Newman’s rather pedestrian musical numbers, which crop up from time to time, but are easily forgettable.

James and the Giant Peach Blu-Ray + DVD 2-Disc Combo Pack

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • Behind the scenes featurette
  • “Good News” music video
  • “Spike the Aunts” interactive game
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorWalt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateAugust 3, 2010

    The AVC-encoded 1080p high-def transfer for James and the Giant Peach gives us a faithful reproduction of the film’s inherent look, which is slightly soft and stylized and features relatively flat colors (the image also seems a tad darker than you would think, but I imagine that is intentional given the film’s twisted tone). There is a fine sheen of grain in the image that enhances its filmlike appearance, yet detail remains strong, allowing us to appreciate the finer nuances of the stop-motion animation even if the image is never razor sharp. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack does a nice job of drawing us into the action, with good separation and directionality for the actions sequences and excellent fidelity in the musical numbers.
    The supplements are definitely light, despite the “Special Edition” label attached to the package. From the earlier DVD we get a four-minute behind the scenes featurette that includes interviews with Selick and members of the cast, Randy Newman’s “Good News” music video, and the original theatrical trailer. The only new addition is the “Spike the Aunts” interactive game, in which you try to poke Aunts Spiker and Sponge with a rhino horn.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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