Judge Erich Asperschlager likes big fruit and he cannot lie.
"Good heavens! He's committed pesticide!"
Animator Henry Selick made his directorial debut with Tim Burton's stop-motion holiday mashup The Nightmare Before Christmas. For his next project, he reconnected with Burton for the big-screen adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic James and the Giant Peach. Unlike Nightmare, 1996's James and the Giant Peach added stylized live action to the stop-motion animation, giving the film a look distinct from the computer generated movies that were on the verge of taking over.
Just shy of 15 years after its original release, James and the Giant Peach is getting a new, digitally restored release in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. It's been ten years since it first hit DVD as a less-than-special "Special Edition." Disney must have used that time to bulk out the bonus features, right?
Facts of the Case
Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach is the story of James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry, Microsoap), an orphan who lives with his cruel Aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley, Corpse Bride) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Everything changes for James when a mysterious stranger (Pete Postlethwaite, The Usual Suspects) offers him the power to make his life better, a promise that arrives in the form of a gigantic peach and a group of human-sized insects—a grasshopper (Simon Callow, David Copperfield), a ladybug (Jane Leeves, Frasier), a spider (Susan Sarandon, Enchanted), a centipede (Richard Dreyfuss, What About Bob?), a glowworm (also Margolyes), and an earthworm (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)…which I know is not technically an insect. Together, James and his new friends escape his aunts and travel across the sea aboard the peach, in search of a fresh start in a magical place called New York.
As a kid, I devoured Roald Dahl's books. I loved them. I found them twisted, endlessly creative, and funny as heck. Like a very few children's writers, Dahl understood a fundamental truth about kids: they love seeing bullies punished in horrifying ways—bullies like the wonderfully named Aunts Spiker and Sponge, who, in Dahl's original book, are crushed to death by the peach as it rolls down off the hill. In the Disney movie, only their car is crushed, and the aunts survive. Too bad. Despite the lack of villainous family member murder, James and the Giant Peach brings the spirit of Roald Dahl to screen better than just about any of his other movie adaptations.
James and the Giant Peach captures Dahl's boundless imagination and creativity. Like all good book-to-movie translations, Selick isn't afraid to make changes to the original story to fit the film. Some of those changes seem arbitrary—like replacing the swarm of real sharks that attack the peach with one gigantic mechanical shark with rotating saw blades for teeth. Those changes work, though, because they support the idea that what we're seeing the story through James's eyes. To a child who's never seen a shark in real life, the very idea of one is so terrifying it might as well be a literal killing machine.
Other changes are more of a departure. In Dahl's book, James's parents are killed in a freak rhino accident. In the movie, while the method of death is the same, the rhino plays a larger role in the story as the embodiment of James's fear, a fear he must face before completing his journey. The biggest deviation from the book, though, is an added sequence that finds James, Centipede, and Miss Spider fighting skeleton pirates below the Arctic ocean. Besides being an excuse for a Jack Skellington cameo, it's a fun bit of action that moves both the plot, and the characters, forward. It's not from Dahl, but it feels right for the movie.
The spirit of the original book is also present in the film's musical numbers. Songs and poems play big parts in Dahl's books. In addition to the more traditional songs he wrote for James and the Giant Peach, composer Randy Newman set one of Dahl's songs—sung when the creepy crawly crew decide to eat the peach—to music. Like the Oompa Loompa numbers in the Willy Wonka movies, the song is a reminder of Dahl's twisted genius.
James and the Giant Peach's biggest strength, as both a book and a movie, are its characters. Like most big-budget animated movies, Peach has an all-star cast. Unlike many of those movies, though, James and the Giant Peach doesn't have any stunt casting. Susan Saranadon, Jane Leeves, Richard Dreyfuss, and David Thewlis—as Miss Spider, Ladybug, Centipede, and Earthworm—give such strong performances I didn't know they were in the movie until the credits.
James and the Giant Peach hits Blu-ray as a digitally-restored transfer in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded video is rich with detail. The peach is soft and fuzzy on the outside and deliciously gooey on the inside. Although this isn't the pristine world of computer-generated animation, it's mostly the better for it. Animation fans will love getting up close with the main character models, each of which has a unique look. Ladybug's smooth shell, the Grasshopper's finely tailored waistcoat—the attention to detail gives the sets and stop-motion characters a handmade look with a warmth missing from most CGI. The live action footage isn't as stylish in comparison, but it still benefits from the hi-def upgrade. Even with all the detail, the picture suffers somewhat from a heavy film grain, and isn't as bright as I'd like.
James and the Giant Peach might not look like it was mode yesterday, but it sure sounds like it was. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is punchy and immersive. From environmental sounds and spatial effects to the catchy songs and orchestration, every speaker has plenty to do.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After a decade since James and the Giant Peach first hit DVD, you'd think Disney would celebrate its hi-def release with something special. The 2000 DVD release claimed to be a "Special Edition," but came with only seven minutes of extras. This new release also bears the "Special Edition" moniker, and has pretty much the same lackluster bonus features as its predecessor. The four-and-a-half minute making-of featurette is more promotional than informational, and is presented in full screen standard definition. So is the music video for the Newman original "Good News," though it at least presents the footage from the movie as it appears in the feature presentation. Both of those extras appear on both the DVD and Blu-ray discs. Weirdly, the other carryover extra from the original DVD release—a gallery of stills from the movie—is only available on the Blu-ray disc, a poor choice since it only accentuates how small the images are. The lone brand-new extra is a game called "Spike the Aunts," based on the sequence that appears in the movie at the very end of the credits. In the movie, the game looks like an old mechanical carnival novelty. As a remote-controlled game, it's presented as bland 2-D barely at the level of a Flash game. Plus, it's not very fun. There are reasons to get this combo pack; the bonus feature list is not one of them.
Even though purists might look at James and the Giant Peach as a Disnified take on Roald Dahl's skewed sensibilities, it gets more right than it does wrong. The decision to go with stop-motion animation at a time when computers were taking over was a wise one; James and the Giant Peach has aged far more gracefully than CGI movies made around the same time. Disney may have dropped the ball on the bonus features, but the digitally restored transfer looks awfully good, especially on Blu-ray. It may not be perfect, but this version of James is a peach of a release.
Go ahead, take a bite. Not guilty!
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