“This is James Henry Trotter. He lived with his mother and father in a cozy little house by the sea. It was a wonderful life. They had each other, and they had their dreams. Then, one day a terrible thing happened. An angry rhinoceros appeared out of nowhere and gobbled up his poor mother and father…”
Pretty bizarre for a kiddie flick, wouldn’t you say? Not when Roald Dahl is penning the story. Roald Dahl was no stranger to children’s movies. Some of the most beloved classics in that genre were once just a thought in Dahl’s rather eccentric and delightfully twisted head. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (also Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, the original title). But he was quite an eclectic writer indeed. He penned one of the Sean Connery James Bond Films (You Only Live Twice). Even more strange is the fact that this children’s writer got his break writing twisted tales of horror and suspense for the likes of Tales Of The Unexpected, Way Out and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was on the latter show that he penned one of the most famous episodes of the series. Lamb To Slaughter was a clever tale of a woman who killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, only to serve the evidence to the police officers investigating the crime. With that kind of diabolical imagination, can it really be any wonder that the likes of Tim Burton has a certain soft spot for the man’s work? After the incredible success of the Burton produced and Henry Selick directed A Nightmare Before Christmas, it was probably about as natural as pure water that the same team would turn to Roald Dahl’s collected works for their encore. They turned to James And The Giant Peach.
James Trotter (Terry) lived an idyllic life with his wonderful parents in England. They taught him to nourish his imagination. They lived happily ever after, or at least they would have if not that both parents would be devoured by a stray rhino. It’s the type of fantastic morbid detail that Dahl did best. With his parents gone, life was about to change for the worse for young James. He would be sent to live with his wicked old Aunt Spiker (Lumley) and Aunt Sponge (Margolyes). The Aunts worked the poor boy nearly to death, feeding him only the crumbs from their own bountiful table.
One night James encounters an odd old man (Postlethwaite) out in the yard. The man gifts him with a bag of crocodile tongues. He promises wonderful things and is gone. Those wily crocodile tongues break loose from their bag and enter the soil. Before you know it, the old dead peach tree in the yard bears its first fruit in ages. One lone peach appears on the lifeless branches. It grows to enormous size in no time at all. The Aunts, of course, see this as a wonderful money-making scheme and are soon charging admission to see the peach. No cameras please. But, when James can no longer resist temptation, he takes a bite from the peach. Soon a large hole opens in the giant fruit’s side. Large enough for a boy to crawl through. When James enters the peach, he is transformed to a magical replica of himself. Inside he discovers that many of the local bugs have been enlarged with the peach. There’s Grasshopper (Callow), Centipede (Dreyfus), Ladybug (Leeves), Miss Spider (Sarandon), Glowworm (Margolyes) and Earthworm (Thewlis). The peach tumbles from its hill and crashes into the ocean.
James makes friends with his fellow passengers as they decide to take the peach to New York, where James’ parents were about to take him for an adventure before they died. With the help of a flock of seagulls, James and his new friends start their journey. Of course, there will be a few adventures along the way.
The film begins in live action up until the point that James enters the peach. From then on until the movie’s coda, stop motion takes over. It’s a rather clever way to distinguish between the magical world and that of the mundane. Here Centipede literally steals the show. The creature comes off like an emcee and has all the one-liners. James isn’t afraid of the giant spider because he had showed kindness to the arachnid when she was smaller and in danger from the Aunts. That wouldn’t work here where a state of war exists between myself and those eight-legged freaks that patrol the recesses of our Florida home. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay so long as I avoid crawling into any rather large pieces of fruit, a mango perhaps.
To add even more magic to the film, we have a few songs written by Randy Newman. His work would go on to provide the same kind of musical nuance to many of the Pixar films. The singing performances might not be exactly Carnegie Hall, but they work for what is really a rather simple children’s story.
And that’s exactly the only way to approach or judge this film. It isn’t as fantastical as Nightmare was. It wasn’t really intended to be. The Aunts play it way too over-the-top, but not any more than several similar Disney films about wicked guardians of innocent children. There’s a decided Dickens aspect to the story that may or may not have been part of Dahl’s original intent.
James And The Giant Peach is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of almost 40 mbps. This is almost the tale of two films. The live action is a bit dark and not an extremely pleasing piece of film. There’s a ton of grain. Of course, it is preferable to the excessive DNR work I’ve encountered, but it’s not just the grain. The film appears rather dirty. There wasn’t much of any kind of restoration done here to prepare the film for high definition. Once the film changes to stop motion, colors are brighter and detail jumps up considerably. Still there are specs and print defects that really ought to have been cared for. Disney usually does a far better job of their Blu-ray releases than this. Black levels are weak, and there are times that you’d swear you were watching a standard-definition disc. It’s an uneven presentation to say the least.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is far better represented here than the image presentation. The mix is quite good. The surrounds provide just a minimal amount of space without changing the original film mix so noticeably. The songs are pretty clean and sound about as good as a CD would. There is some high end distortion. It’s not so obvious that it distracts. The dialog is always quite clear, and placement is excellent.
The only new feature on the Blu-ray is a Spike The Aunts game that is pretty lame.
DVD Copy, Digital Copy, BDLive
The film appears more dated today than I remembered it when it was first released. So much computer-generated wizardry has come down the line since that you’ll be tempted to disregard it as crude and rather “old hat”. But, there is still a lot of magic here if you open your mind to it all. It’ll be a fine family film. It’s short enough that it won’t tax the attention spans of the little ones. The characters are lively enough to make the time go by rather quickly for the adults, as well. “Pick this peach while it’s still ripe, but be warned: They never did find that rhino.”