The titular would-be orphan of Henry Selick’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book James and the Giant Peach is introduced at the outset of the film as a normal human boy who has survived a decidedly irregular amount of suffering in his few years of life. At age four, young James lives in a beachside community in England with his doting parents until, as the narrator (Pete Postlethwaite) tells us, they are killed by an escaped rhino. Left alone, he is sent to live with his two decrepit aunts who, for all he’s been through, treat poor James as if he were a burden comparable to a large tumor growing in both of their stomachs.
Now slightly older, James (Paul Terry) seems on the brink of collapse when he receives a bag of magic crocodile tongues from a mysterious gent (Postlethwaite again) and accidentally spills them on a peach tree, resulting in one peach growing to the size of a small home. The aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes), begin charging admission to view the immense fruit, charging local vicars double. But one night, after the aunts refuse him a proper meal for the countless time, James decides to take a bite of the peach, creating an entrance that he instinctively enters.
Up until this point, Selick works in live action and the effect is dreadfully dull. The sets are crudely designed with little in the way of detail and the performances, though purposefully hammy, also come off as overbearing, even awkward. (In terms of the art of melding live action with claymation, it must be mentioned that James and the Giant Peach is notably superior to its follow-up, Monkeybone, an altogether unpleasant film.) It could be said that the initial, ineffectual time spent in the “real world” highlights the liveliness of the animated one. If that is Selick’s intention, however, the live-action sequences never feel truly nightmarish, and James, as a character, isn’t nearly as fascinating as his obvious forbearer, Oliver Twist.
Indeed, the juxtaposition between James being beaten, starved, and used by his aunts and finding comfort with a pack of critters he finds inside the peach should be as starkly pointed emotionally as it is visually. From the first glimpse of James animated inside the hull of the giant peach, the film feels far more settled in tone and moves with an effervescent fleetness. Inside the peach, James is introduced to a secondary family who, like all the candies, devices, and creatures of Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, refract both James’s inner turmoil and his dreamland. There’s a loudmouth caterpillar (Richard Dreyfuss), a motherly spider (Susan Sarandon), a nerve-wracked earthworm (David Thewlis), a cultured cricket (Simon Callow), and a flighty ladybug (Jane Leeves), all of which get their quiet moments to psychologically expound with James as the peach heads for New York City.
Selick has proven himself a deft craftsman and choreographer when it comes to animated action sequences and though James and the Giant Peach never hits the sublime heights of, say, Jack Skeleton’s battle with Oogie Boogie or Coraline facing the final challenges set forth by the Other Mother, it nonetheless has some excellent sequences. The most complex battle involves James and friends battling a mechanic shark while attempting to harness the peach to a flock of seagulls, but for me, the caterpillar’s eerie plunge to the depths to retrieve a compass is the highlight. (Like Dahl, Selick is a fan of referencing his earlier works: Jack Skeleton is redeployed here as a long-dead pirate king who holds the compass.)
Though certainly not a travesty of any sort, James and the Giant Peach does strike me as the weakest thus far of Dahl’s to-screen adaptations and this mostly has to do with the problems Selick encounters with mixing the world of imagination with the real world. As barely sufferable as the first 20 minutes are, the film’s climax can only be described as a train wreck, as the peach touches down in New York and James confronts his aunts publicly. Selick’s psychological trajectory is needlessly convoluted and takes the focus off the simplicity of Dahl’s book, which was adapted by Karey Kirkpatrick, Steve Bloom, and Jonathan Roberts. Tim Burton’s much-maligned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may have ruffled people’s nostalgia a bit too much, but it remains both cohesive and delirious throughout, and Wes Anderson turned Fantastic Mr. Fox into perhaps the most visually rich portrait of modern family life and community of the last decade. Selick’s James and the Giant Peach, though similarly loyal to its source and visually engaging for the greater portion of its 79-minute runtime, ultimately deludes its psychological undercurrents by forcing them to the surface.
James and the Giant Peach is one of those rare situations where Disney has dropped the ball with a mediocre-at-best 1080p transfer. Strings are noticeable in a handful of shots, as are certain alterations to the figures. Worse, the live-action sequences are unbalanced, black levels are all over the place, and blemishes are noticeable throughout. For the most part, this does not affect the overall watchability of the film, but anyone paying close enough attention will note severe problems. The audio fares far better with crisp, clear dialogue and narration, as well as a simple but beautiful detailing of atmosphere. The entire package is serviceable but near the bottom of Disney's Blu-ray lineup thus far.
The behind-the-scenes featurette, with Henry Selick working on the figurines and the sets, is the only thing of note here, and even then it isn't anything to get very excited about. The psychological heft of Roald Dahl's story, not to mention its dark overtones, are barely touched upon, but the work with the figures is fascinating enough. A music video for Randy Newman's "Good News," which plays over the film's end credits, is included, as is the original theatrical trailer.
The least successful of a handful of attempts to bring Roald Dahl to the screen, a wildly unbalanced transfer on Blu-ray does little to make a new case for James and the Giant Peach as a rediscovered lost gem of the new animation golden age.