James and the Giant Peach
August 7, 2010

Newly available on Blu-ray is the 1996 stop-motion animated James and the Giant Peach, produced by Tim Burton (whose recent success with Alice in Wonderland may have spurred the release of this movie, with its similarities) and directed by Henry Selick (Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas). It’s based, of course, on the rather twisted children’s book by Roald Dahl.

James and the Giant Peach cover
James and the Giant Peach
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The young English boy James (played by Paul Terry), like Alice, has recently lost his beloved parents (well, Alice only lost her father in the film). He’s facing a much grimmer life than he anticipated, and he’s asked to grow up more quickly than he should. Then he enters a wonderful new world with astounding animal friends and learns to have faith in himself and his abilities to escape the miserable circumstances life has put him in.

As in other Tim Burton movies, domestic life is a scene of horrors. I’m greatly impressed that Joanna Lumley allowed herself to look so harsh and to play such a monster as one of the two awful aunts that take in James in the live-action opening section. The cast overall is quite impressive, with Pete Postlethwaite as the mysterious old man who starts the weirdness happening, and see the voice list below.

James is kind to a spider he finds, which indirectly leads to magical Maguffins growing a giant peach. When he crawls inside a tunnel into the fruit, he becomes animated and meets a number of talking insects:

  • Grasshopper (Simon Callow, Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Charles Dickens in many forms, including the Doctor Who revamp)
  • Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon, in her first musical since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with a lovely exotic accent)
  • The Glowworm (Miriam Margolyes, who also plays the other aunt)
  • Ladybug (Jane Leeves)
  • Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss)
  • Earthworm (David Thewlis, Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter movies)

They set off to finally take James to his dream town of New York City. I’d forgotten this was a musical, with songs by Randy Newman. And just how weird it could be at times, with James’ magical friends not being at all cuddly, but instead spiky and exaggerated, and the scary steampunk mechanical shark. The friends even stake Earthworm out as bait for seagulls in order to capture a source of propulsion for their odd vehicle, once it hits the sea.

It’s a rather complex movie for a kids’ film, likely due to the source material. Some younger kids may find it frightening, especially the rhino thunderclouds, but it’s got enough in it to keep adults interested as well. For example, when the Centipede does something daring and dangerous to help the others, they cry, “he’s committed pesticide!” There’s also a Jack Skellington (The Nightmare Before Christmas) cameo during the ghost pirate sequence. The overall message, that official family doesn’t matter as much as those who truly care about you, regardless of how odd they may be, is one that many will identify with.

Since this is a Disney release, this is a combo pack, containing both a Blu-ray disc and a DVD. Strangely, the disc opens with an ad for Disney Blu-ray that talks about how wonderful the format is for “doing things together” as families and how great it is to get a DVD with a combo pack to “share the movie experience on the go”. I would think, since you have to own one in order to see the ad, that the continued upsell wouldn’t be necessary, but maybe it’s subtly reminding customers that they did the right thing with their purchase (or allowing them to feel superior?). Also, Blu-rays are “kid proof and more scratch resistant”. I didn’t know that.

The bonus features found on both discs, DVD and Blu-ray, are minimal:

  • a 4 1/2-minute production featurette, made at the time of the movie’s release, with comments by director Henry Selick
  • a music video for the “Good News” song, which features Randy Newman performing
  • the theatrical trailer

The Blu-ray additionally has a “Spike the Aunts” game, inspired by the short extra after the end credits, that allows you to aim a rhino at the evil aunts, and photo galleries. So there’s no need to upgrade, if you already have the DVD, but if you don’t yet own this film, this re-release is a good reminder to get it. (The studio provided a review copy.)

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