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James and the Giant Peach (Special Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 October 2000

James And The Giant Peach (DTS)
Disney DVD
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Pete Postlethwaite; Voices: Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves, Susan Sarandon
release year: 1996
film rating: Three and a half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

In 1993, the delightful, unique "A Nightmare Before Christmas" briefly re-established stop-motion animation as a major story-telling technique. Even before that film was released, its director Henry Selick had reunited much of the movie's crew to begin production on this adaptation of Roald Dahl's much-loved James and the Giant Peach. But while this one is often charming, as well as handsomely designed and animated, it lacks the excitement and novelty of "Nightmare." It's even a little plodding at times, partly because much of it -- necessarily -- takes place on top and inside of the giant peach of the title.
The movie opens as live action. James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) lives an idyllic life by the English seashore with his parents, who promise to take him to New York, but they're eaten up by a giant rhinoceros (offscreen, fortunately), and James sent to live with his greedy, hideous aunts, Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes), who work him like a slave and crush his every dream. When he befriends a wayward spider, they try to crush that, too. But then James meets a strange man (Pete Postlethwaite) who gives him a bag of glowing green crocodile tongues, promising him that they will work magic. But James spills the bag at the base of a dried-up old peach tree in front of his aunts' chilly house.

At once, the tree sprouts a peach that grows and grows until it is 20 feet in diameter. The aunts shoo James away and begin selling tickets, but one night, he eats a bit of the giant fruit. He hears a noise from within the peach, and as he crawls up a tunnel in it to investigate, he turns into a stop-motion figure. Inside he finds six friendly bugs: the violin-playing Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the pugnacious Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), the matronly Ladybug (Jane Leeves), a nervous Earthworm (David Thewlis), a Glowworm that actually looks more like a beetle (Miriam Margolyes again), and the very Spider (Susan Sarandon) James had befriended earlier.

James has not gotten smaller; the bugs, thanks to the crocodile tongues, have gotten larger, and can speak. The bugs and James break the peach free, which flattens the aunts as it rolls into the sea and drifts away on the tide. The rest of the movie tells how James and his friends get the peach from England to New York, with a detour to a frozen wasteland. But the adventures and dangers are not over after they take the big peach to the Big Apple.

Bless Roald Dahl: there are very few Life Lessons in "James and the Giant Peach," and those that are there are slid in subtly. Primarily, the film is an adventure movie for children, with witty lines for adults (when the Centipede leaps off the peach at one point, the Grasshopper gasps "he's committed pesticide!"), and occasional okay but unmemorable songs by Randy Newman.

It's a graceful movie, but it's also somewhat slow-paced. Most of the animation sequence is set upon the giant peach; even though a kind of walkway wraps around it, and even though there's a cozy cave inside, it's still a very confined space upon which to set an adventure. Director Selick and his writers, Karey Kirkpatrick ("The Rescuers Down Under"), Jonathan Roberts ("The Lion King") and Steve Bloom ("The Sure Thing"), try to vary the setting as much as possible, but for an animated film, there's a lot of talk, and things slow down as the peach is carried over the Atlantic by a flock of seagulls.
The design is handsome but uneven; the characters look like they were designed by half a dozen different artists, and are not particularly appealing, and the Centipede is downright ugly.

Though this movie shows tremendous effort and caring, there's something lacking. It's not exciting, for one thing; you keep waiting for something magical to happen, and eventually discover you've been waiting for quite a while. The technical accomplishments are very impressive, but a movie has to be more than great animation, and on this DVD, great sound. And children are not awed by fantastic technical accomplishments; if the story and characters catch their attention, they don't mind if the animation is crude, the effects are obvious, or the production values low.

The ending is very satisfying, with an awesome reappearance of the parent-eating rhino, but it takes too long to reach this end. But win or lose, it still confirms, as "Nightmare Before Christmas" did, that there is more to animation than cartoons, and that stop-motion, one of the most difficult, time-consuming effects processes of all time, remains a viable means of telling a story in a unique and entertaining way. Too bad Henry Selick hasn't followed up with another stop-motion film.

The extras are minimal; the DVD includes the promotional "making-of" documentary made while the film was in production, and some stills. There are no new interviews, and no commentary track.

more details
sound format:
DTS Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: making-of documentary, music video, stills, language selections
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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