James and the Giant Peach: Blu-ray Review

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New Blu-ray release offers improved picture and sound quality but little in the way of additional bonus features.

Riding on the delightfully cobwebbed coat-tails of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, poor JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH was probably predestined to be a disappointment, for what film could possibly live up to that level of expectation? Even with the NIGHTMARE team of director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi reassembled, it was unlikely that the mad scientist’s lightening would animate a new creation of equal quality.
Sad to say, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH not only failed to meet unrealistic expectations; it was also an under achiever on its own terms. Although a technical marvel of production design, stop-motion animation, and other special effects techniques, the film is felled by annoying characters, flat songs, and a limp screenplay straining to pad a slim story out to feature length. The bottom line is that it lacked the magic that made THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS a joy to watch again and again.
The reason for this becomes clear during the fist act’s live action sequences. The notion that young James became an orphan when a rhinoceros gobbled up his parents is awkwardly handled by depicting the rampaging rhino as a cloud. After that, the film finds its tone; unfortunately, that tone can best be summed up as “annoying.” The live-action scenes of James being mistreated by his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miram Margoylyes), are achingly unfunny despite the obvious attempt to portray the campy pair as vile villains of the black comedy variety.
James and the Giant Peach (1996): James with insect palsWhen James escapes from Spiker and Sponge in the giant peach of the title, the film shifts to stop-motion. The transition is smoothly handled, adding an extra level of fantasy to the material. Unfortunately, James’s new friends, a small group of insects, turn out to be almost as annoying as his aunts, especially the brash-talking centipede voiced by Richard Dreyfuss. James himself is a fairly non-descript character, whom the others praise for his cleverness, even when he is doing only what is obvious. His big scene, confronting the rhinoceros that gobbled his parents, plays like a hollow victory, because we can see that he is merely yelling at a dissipating cloud – not the most courageous act of heroism ever recorded on camera.
As if sensing that the third act needs something more, the script throws in a ridiculous scene in New York, where the peach lands on top of the Empire State Building – only for James to be met by his aunts, who have apparently driven beneath the Atlantic ocean in their beat-up old car! What is clearly meant to be taken as a hysterically surreal moment is too obviously an awkward writer’s device, providing an opportunity for the aunt’s to get their come-uppance at the hands of James’s insect friends. But this is par for the course: the entire script feels like an episodic grab bag, with occasional threats and obstacles showing up randomly just to give the characters something to do.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH deserves credit for attempting to translate the wicked, semi-scary tone of Roald Dahl’s children’s book to the screen; unfortunately, the attempt fails, creating an odd mix of the whimsical and the weird that feels less like an audacious conflation of contradictory elements than an awkward jumble, a point too often underlined by Randy Newman’s score, which becomes the audio equivalent of someone repeatedly elbowing you in the ribs to remind you how wonderful and amazing all of this is supposed to be. Perhaps Dahl’s combination of childhood fantasies and fears is difficult to realize on screen, but THE WITCHES (1990), directed by Nicolas Roeg, proved that it can be done without diluting either element.


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click to purchase DVD

Disney’s new special edition 2-disc combo pack (Street Date: August 3, 2010) includes JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH on both Blu-ray and DVD. The picture quality on both is quite nice. Of course, the high-def Blu-ray transfer is superior; however, the picture quality of the 1996 film is not up to the standards of more recent films when transferred to the high-def medium. The result looks very good, but it does not pop off the screen in the same way that the Blu-ray discs own menu features do.
Unfortunately, both discs feature what Walt Disney Pictures likes to call “Fast Play,” which is touted as an “easy start up without using a remote control.” What this means is that, instead of going immediately to the main menu, the disc immediately starts playing promos and trailers for other Disney products, through which you must chapter stop to get to the film you actually thought you were purchasing. This is not so much a problem with the DVD, but it is annoying with the Blu-ray, which has a longer loading time – god forbid you should accidentally push the Eject button midway through the movie, and then have to go through the whole loading process again.
Both discs port over bonus features from the 2000 special edition DVD release: a making-of featurette (actually a promotional puff piece); a trailer; a Randy Newman music video; and several extensive photo galleries, divided up into Concept Art, Puppets, Behind the Scenes, and Live Action. In addition, the DVD includes a trailer for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is not available on the Blu-ray.
The only new feature actually on the Blu-ray disc is a videogame that allows you to earn points by manipulating a rhinoceros to head-butt Aunts Spiker and Sponge. It’s amusing for a minute or two; little kids may enjoy it a while longer. The Blu-ray disc is also BD-Live enabled, which allows you to access more material via an Internet connection to your Blu-ray player.

NOTE: According to the 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, my view of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is clearly in the minority. You can get a second opinion on the film, courtesy of Mike Lyons, by clicking here.


Star Trek: First Contact (1996) – Retrospective Science Fiction Film Review

This is the eighth film in the STAR TREK franchise and the second to feature the cast of THE NEXT GENERATION. True to the tradition of TREK films (odd numbered entries and disappointing; even numbered ones are good), this is a considerable improvement over the previous entry, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS. The plot involves an Enterprise encounter with the bio-mechanical Borg (the popular villain from TNG’s television incarnation), which assimilates species into its collective, but this time there’s a twist: whereas the series implied that the Borg were non-hierarchical in structure, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT gives them a Queen (played by Alice Krige), mostly because it’s more fun and more dramatic to have the villainy personified in a single entity rather than spread out over a large group.
The story also contains (rather unnecessarily) a time travel plot: the Borg return to Earth just before the invention of Warp Drive and (off-screen) colonize the helpless planet. This gives the film a chance to give their portrait of a character first seen in the original series, Zephram Cochran (here played by James Cromwell). Unfortunately, this last element is the sort of sop to the fans that plagued the STAR TREK features: rehashing elements from the series. Although the Trek motto is “to go where no one has gone before,” too often the films insisted on taking audiences back to elements they had seen before — on the small screen.
Consequently, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT falls prey to the problem that has marred the TREK features since STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN: it feels more like a big version of a television episode than a full-blown feature film. It does a good job of serving up elements that will please the fans of the show, but it does not quite stand on its own as a memorable motion picture event.
Despite these missteps, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT is one of the better TREK films, thanks to a reasonably strong script by Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga and decent direction from Jonathan Frakes (who continues in his role as Will Riker). Frakes is no visual stylist, but he knows that material and serves it well, hitting all the obligatory notes that Trekkies love and providing the familiar shtick one expects from the established characters. The battle with the Borg creates excitement and even some decent drama regarding Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart)’s Ahab-like quest to destroy his enemy. (Here again, the impact is stronger for those familiar with the series: at the end of TNG’s Season Three, the Picard himself was “assimilated,” so he has a personal grudge against the species.) The invasion of Earth is played out on a much smaller scale that the alien invasion of INDEPENDENCE DAY (which came out the same year): we really only see the gradual assimilation of the Enterprise, not of Earth itself; and yet the film is almost as effective.
As usual with TNG, the female crew members are relegated to minor supporting roles. The only female who emerges with any zeal is the Borg Queen. Fortunately, Alice Krige performance is so good that one easily forgives the fact that her character’s mere existence contradicts much of what we know about the Borg (most obviously, she has a personal identity, whereas the Borg are supposed to be a collective hive mind). And it is amusing to see that, in order to goose up the excitement level of the NEXT GENERATION films series, it was necessary to delve into horror territory: Krige’s Queen, at once seductive and loathsome, looks as if she stepped out of Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER series. (Similar, Barker-inspired motifs appeared later in STAR TREK: NEMESIS)
Unfortunately, with the usual misplaced zeal of THE NEXT GENERATION, the script takes aim at something from Classic STAR TREK in order to denigrate it: in this case, Cochrane is portrayed not as a revered scientist but as a selfish entrepreneur who created Warp Drive only so he could profit from it. Typically, a little exposure to the new Enterprise crew converts him into a hero—a sad example of the NEXT GENERATION producers and writers trying to insist that their franchise is superior to the original. (Someone should have told Braga and Moore, and producer Rick Berman, that iconoclasm is mitigated when you simply replace the old icons with ones of your own creation.)
This self-congratulatory approach might have been more acceptable if the Cochran scenes had been better; instead, the sequences on 21st century Earth play out like a standard B-story from the NEXT GENERATION series, allowing the film editor to cut away from the main story at periodic intervals. Fortunately, that main story of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT is powerful enough to overcome the interruptions. The film also has the benefit of Picard’s struggle to overcome his obsessive desire to destroy the Borg — at whatever cost. This is the kind of element that always helped STAR TREK stand above run-of-the-mill science-fiction: no mere effects show, TREK featured stories about interesting heroes who were recognizable to us, even if they did live hundreds of years in the future.
STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996). Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Screenplay by Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore; story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga & Ronald D. Moore. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, Alice Krige, Michael Horton, Neal McDonough, Marnie McPhail, Robert Picardo, Dwight Schultz.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Biodrowski. A slightly different version of this review appeared in Cinefantasitque magazine.

James and the Giant Peach: Film Review

james_and_the_giant_peachJAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH may be fashioned from a variety of film-making techniques, but there is one intangible element that holds the film together: pure imagination. Springing to life first in the fertile mind of author Roald Dahl and then planted like a seed in the equally fertile mind of stop-mo¬tion director Henry Selick, JAMES is a unique film. Like all great fantasies from THE WIZARD OF OZ to TOY STORY, it has the ability to spark imagination in the mind of its audience.

Director Henry Selick, having already proved himself proficient in the arduous realm of stop-motion with 1993’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, now adds this impressive notch to his artistic belt. The film opens in live-action, telling the tale of young James (an excellent performance by newcomer Paul Terry), who is forced to live with his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (over the top villainy from Miriam Margoyles and Joanna Lumley) after his parents’ death. Selick wisely chose to give these sequences the surrealistic look of stop-motion, which not only sets up the nether¬world quality of the film but also makes the transition into the world of stop-motion less jolting.

When James enters the giant peach and encounters the humanized insects, the story pulls out of the slight stall laid upon it by the down¬beat opening sequences. From the beginning, the animation is nothing short of a knockout. The hand craft¬ed images are blended seamlessly with computer graphics to create such startling sequences as a battle with skeletons aboard an underwater pirate ship (a possible nod to Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARG¬ONAUTS), and another sequence in which the peach, tethered to a flock of sea gulls while floating at sea, comes under attack by a mechanical shark (this may be one of the best action sequences you’ll see at the movies all year). Selick also uses JAMES as an excuse to experiment wonderfully with other animation forms, such as a hallucinogenic dream sequence, accomplished using cut outs a la Monty Python.

With such scenes, JAMES could have fallen into the same “style over substance” trap that turned many off to NIGHTMARE. But unlike the residents of that film’s “Halloween¬town,” who at times seemed like nothing more than set dressing, the insects in GIANT PEACH are fully-developed oddball personalities, similar in many ways to TOY STORY’s toys. Providing even more dimension is a great voice cast: British character actor Simon Callow gives just the perfect “veddy British” tone to Grasshopper; Susan Sarandon plays the sultry Miss Spider as Greta Garbo (she even says, “I prefer to be alone”); and Richard Dreyfuss pulls off a scene stealing performance as the Centipede, with his “Brooklynese” and off-the-cuff one liners.

The insects also add a great deal of depth to the story, warming up to James and helping him to overcome his fears (which are represented by the image of a Rhino-shaped storm cloud). The insects also perform the film’s most poignant song “We’re Family,” one of five new composi¬tions by Randy Newman, each fitting nicely into the plot, many of them infectious, including the gospel-like “Good News,” which closes the film.

JAMES falls just short of being a perfect film, but its failings are small-such as in its conclusion, which combines live-action and animation in a way that seems clumsily executed and strangely out of joint with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is a satisfying experience that’s perfect for anyone who needs a quick fix of pure imagination.

Click here to read a review of the 2010 Blu-ray disc of JAMES THE THE GIANT PEACH.

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Producers: Denise DiNovi, Tim Burton. Executive producer: Jake Eberts. Co-producers: Brian Rosen, Henry Selick. Director: Henry Selick. Camera: Pete Kozachik, Biro Narita, A.S.C. Editor: Stan Webb. Music & songs: Randy Newman. Production design: Harley Jessup. Conceptual design: Lane Smith. Animation supervisor: Paul Berry. Art direction: Bill Boes, Kendal Cronkhite. Costume design: Julie Slinger. Sound design: (Dolby), Gary Rydstrom. Visual effects supervisor: Kozachik. Screeaplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Blood, from the book by Roald Dahl. 4/96, SO mins. Rated PG. Cast:  Paul Terry, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves, Miriam Margolyes,  Joanna Lumley,  Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis.

This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.

James and the Giant Peach – Capsule Review

Don’t be surprised if, much like the titular fruit, you feel you’ve been cast adrift in this live-action/stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic. The story of a boy’s fanciful trip to New York City, accom¬panied by the insect inhabitants of a massive peach, seems to have been a victim of an historic round of studio second-guessing, marked by a formless story (What lesson does James acquire from his flight across the ocean – well, he does at least learn one way to avoid the inconvenience of a trip through customs), flat characterizations (only Susan Sarandon’s coolly seductive spider hits any depth past the obvious and the treacly), and an overabundance of truly hideous and completely pointless songs (hey, I admire Randy Newman as much as anybody, but while a song like “Eating the Peach” – in which the insects exult over all the effluvia and offal they have ingested in their lives ¬ must have sounded great when delivered in the composer’s irony-laced monotone, it’s practically unbearable in its final, jolly incarnation).
As with THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, director Henry Selick’s animation is wonderfully expressive and impressively surreal – the film features many stylistic nods to Selick’s far more fascinating short film, SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS. Looks can go only so far, however, and without the benefit of Tim Burton’s sardonic instincts (not to mention Danny Elfman’s minor-key proficiency), JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH sinks in the mire of its own syrup.

(Walt Disney, 4/96, 80 mins. ) Director: Henry Selick. With: Paul Terry, Susan Sanodon, Richard Dreyruss, Joanna Lumley.

This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.