James and the Giant Peach Review

This partially animated feature from the director of Coraline comes to Blu-ray and DVD.

When adapting a classic Roald Dahl children’s book into a stop motion animation feature film, a distinct vision dosed heavily with humor, wit, and heart can become Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. An uncertain mixture of live action and animation that feels beholden to satisfying some idea of what goes along with the Walt Disney Studios label, complete with the curse of Randy Newman songs, can instead result in James and the Giant Peach as directed by Henry Selick. Don’t cry for Selick. After too long being almost ignored for his contributions to The Nightmare Before Christmas – he was director on that one too, not Tim Burton – and then stumbling with James before taking a drubbing on Monkeybone, last year’s well-received Coraline should hopefully get him out of Burton’s shadow once and for all. Or at least after Disney emphasizes on the cover of this release that it’s from “the creators of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and the acclaimed director of Alice in Wonderland.” Burton only shares a producing credit on James and the Giant Peach.

A pair of significant and unforgivable problems make the film difficult for me to embrace. Despite often being considered an animated movie, James is actually live action for about half of its running time. These scenes are extremely awkward and uneven. Sets look cheap and theatrical while the performances of Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes as James’ two evil aunts go beyond the accepted bounds of grotesque. They even bypass camp to instead reach something far less entertaining. Maybe they were Burton’s creative contribution, potential acquaintances of Danny DeVito’s Penguin in Batman Returns. The young boy who plays and voices James, Paul Terry, isn’t terribly annoying but he’s still more natural in puppet rather than human form. His worst moments come when forced into song. It’s less his voice that’s the issue than what he’s singing. Newman’s contributions are immediately forgettable and uncomfortable to listen to even once. They are as unnecessary, seemingly there just to pad a thin story’s length, as anything I can recall in a Disney picture.

What’s here of a story stagnates from time to time, which is understandable considering the entirety of the plot is basically for James to fulfill his dead parents’ plan of going to New York City. He gets there via Pete Postlethwaite and crocodile tongues, and talking bugs and a giant peach flown by a hundred seagulls. I usually take the train myself. Anyway, once the animated sequences kick in – after about twenty minutes – the film finds a considerable groove. All of the supporting bugs, voiced by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Leeves, Simon Callow and David Thewlis, are done very well. It’s just unfortunate that we only spend thirty or forty minutes with them. I particularly enjoyed Sarandon’s work as the spider who bares a definite resemblance to Marlene Dietrich and Callow’s quite proper and refined grasshopper. When I think fondly of classic Disney animation it’s because of characters like these and not the opportunity to see a little boy singing a too earnest tune and attempting to bond with a real spider.

Things come full circle to some extent by the end of the film, meaning it’s just as bad or even worse than the first twenty minutes of live action. And why do so many of the scenes look like they were lit with a single candle or some other similarly dimming apparatus? Limiting the amount of animation was apparently a measure to cut costs, but was there a similar initiative regarding the use of electricity? What results is a picture that honestly feels unfinished. The animated section is so engaging and light that it’s even more shocking how awful the other half is in comparison. It’s probably a bad idea to split any movie roughly equal between animation and live action, and it’s especially poor form to do so when the quality of the two is this divergent. I know that James and the Giant Peach has developed a fan base since its theatrical release, and I can only assume its partial crudeness feels charming to some viewers, but half of it is embarrassingly bad and the rest is heavily burdened as a result.

The Disc(s)

This Disney Blu-ray released in the U.S. is not region-locked and even has the inviting symbol on the back of the case indicating as much. The included DVD seems to be encoded for R1 and R4. Both discs are dual-layered. The aspect ratio is 1.66:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions on the DVD. The back of the case notes that the “film has been modified from its original version” and “formatted to fit your TV.”

This is a somewhat puzzling transfer. Perhaps it looks true to the original intentions of the filmmakers or maybe there are inherent issues with the source materials, but the image can look excessively dark and/or rife with heavy grain that also makes room for noticeable debris in the print. Mostly, these distractions appear in the live action scenes, where detail is lost in the muddy darkness. As much as anything, though, these sections look poorly lit. Some parts of the film do exhibit impressive levels of detail, when you can make it out. Throughout, colors do not pop, and probably aren’t intended to either. They look shadowed and muted. I can imagine this would be an improvement over the previous DVD release but don’t expect a pristine image. Viewers accustomed to Disney’s usual gorgeous high definition transfers will most likely be shocked and disappointed at the murkiness seen here. At least there’s not excessive use of DNR, and the smothering amount of grain visible is ample evidence of that. What seems especially surprising is how much dirt was left in the transfer at times.

If you like loud audio tracks on your animated movies then you’re in luck. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio makes for a strong listen. It’s easily enveloping and rich, utilizing the surround channels quite well. Dialogue and the narration come through cleanly and with a smooth balance. Volume might be a tad overwhelming but it is completely consistent across the film. There are also French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs and the DVD has an English DD 5.1 track. Optional subtitles are provided in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.

Labeling this release a “Special Edition” as Disney has would seem questionable at best and flat out dishonest at worst. Sure you get a DVD that sits inside the case with the Blu-ray but the only new bonus material is a typically silly interactive game called “Spike the Aunts.” In said game, the object is to have a rhinoceros – presumably the same one that killed young James’ parents – hit the aunts with his horn as they spin around on a wheel. It’s exclusive to the Blu-ray.

A meager selection of extras has been retained from the DVD release. A Production Featurette (4:34) is just a short promo piece. The “Good News” music video (2:28) by Randy Newman shows some decency by being brief and not featuring this week’s latest Disney pop star. A Still Frame Gallery lets users see various artwork and photographs as divided into Concept Art, Puppets, Behind the Scenes, and Live Action. These images seem really tiny to me, with ridiculously thick borders that indicate only a careless porting over from the DVD. The Original Theatrical Trailer (1:27) tries to sell the magic of the film and definitely positions it as a work of animation rather than a mixture. All of these are matted to 4:3.

Also included are the obligatory Disney Sneak Peeks and BD-Live content. The DVD for James and the Giant Peach additionally includes a trailer for The Nightmare Before Christmas.

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 08, 2010

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
James and the Giant Peach Review | The Digital Fix