"James and the Giant Peach" DVD, Blu-ray Review

8/05/2010 Posted by Admin

"James and the Giant Peach"

DVD, Blu-ray Review

Directed by Henry Selick, Written by Steven Bloom, Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts, 76 Minutes, Rated PG

By our guest blogger, Rob Stammitti

Pop quiz: Who directed "A Nightmare Before Christmas"? If you said Tim Burton, shame on you.

Henry Selick, the actual director of "Nightmare" and a pioneer of modern stop-motion animation, really doesn't get enough credit. "Nightmare" gave him his big break in the business, but even now, almost 20 years later, his films ("Coraline" is his latest) are still consistently mistaken for Burton films simply because Burton produced a few of them and wrote one.

"James and the Giant Peach" is Selick's wonderful adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book of the same name. Dahl, author of the far better known "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," is pretty much perfectly suited for Selick's style. The wit, the childlike imagination, the mixture of darkness and flights of fancy. By combining live action with his trademark claymation techniques, Selick captures the spirit of Dahl better than anyone else has (though "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" is quite a few steps above "James" overall).

It tells the story of James Trotter (Paul Terry), a boy with a perfect life that is completely shattered with the death of his parents. He's sent to live with his evil aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes), who abuse him, insult him and his late parents, and keep him around for little more than menial labor. James gets by on his vivid imagination and the hope that one day he'll be able to leave his aunt's wretched house on the hill and go to New York City, where his parents promised to take him before their untimely demise.

One day James happens upon a mysterious stranger (Pete Postlethwaite) who gives him a bag of bizarre insects that he says will bring him "marvelous things." The man disappears, and in a panic James accidentally drops the bag of creatures and they burrow below a tree on the hill, causing a massive peach to grow from it. James' aunts intend on using the giant peach to bring in cash, but one night James takes a bite of the peach, transforming him into, well, claymation, and sending him and the inhabitants of the peach, a group of enormous anthropomorphic bugs, into the sea. Together with Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mrs. Ladybug, Miss Spider and Mr. Earthworm, James sets a course for New York City.

Selick combines stop-motion and live action pretty much perfectly, with much of the sets in the live action acts replicating the wacky, fantastical feel of his animated sets without feeling too blatantly like sets (something Burton had trouble with recently with "Alice in Wonderland"). Of course, Selick is at his best with animation, though--the imagery he and his animators create is truly breathtaking, often better than many of the impressive setpieces in "Nightmare," and whether it's a steampunk shark spitting out plates of tuna or underwater skeleton pirates modelled after various Disney characters, it all melds wonderfully together. This is one of the greatest differences between Burton and Selick--both have similar visual sensibilities, but Selick is far better at bringing multiple setpieces together into one cohesive whole.

The finest aspect of the film, though, must be its music, written by Randy Newman. Not only is Selick great at animation, but with this film and "Nightmare" he proves can stage a mighty fine musical as well, and all of the numbers here are beyond exceptional.

Overall, "James" seems to be a film that would make Dahl proud. It's true to his darkly comedic take on childhood and imagination, and despite little problems here and there, it's definitely on par with Selick's best.

Grade: B

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