Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: James and the Giant Peach

"Marvelous things will happen..."

Director Henry Selick proved he had a knack for stop-motion directing after the hugely acclaimed (and groundbreaking) The Nightmare Before Christmas, so it's no surprise that Disney was interested in pursuing another film with a similar aesthetic.  Based on the book by Ronald Dahl (the phenomenal children's author of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda"), James and the Giant Peach proved that the combination of Selick as director, Tim Burton as producer, and Disney as marketer was one hell of a team.  Are the results quite as good? Well, not exactly.

"Damn, still not far away enough. I can still see my house from here!"

Personal backstory time: I saw this movie for the first time when I was only five years old, and I can still remember sitting there in the theater in amazement.  I was so engrossed in the characters, the visuals, and the story.  It became one of my favorite movies to watch nonstop on VHS for years, so warm and fuzzy feelings are inevitable while trying to view this thing as a twenty-four-year-old.  But view it I did, and it's hard as it was to admit, I couldn't get as wrapped up in the adventure as I can with other Ronald Dahl adaptations.

"Try looking at it another way..."

In the nondescript 1930s, James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) is a young British boy living with his parents in a cozy cottage matte painting by the sea. Until one day, and I'm quoting the narrater here,
an angry rhinoceros appeared out of nowhere and gobbled up his poor mother and father.  You know, offscreen.  We jump ahead to a short time later where he lives with his two aunts, Spiker (Miriam Margoyles) and Sponge (Joanna Lumley).  They are the most vile, despicable people on the face of the earth, which is pretty bad luck for James.  He's forced to work work work work work for them all day with hardly any food and no social time.  I don't think he even goes to school.

James and the Giant Bitches...

Anyway, one day while James is saving the life of a spider from his wicked aunts, a strange old man (Peter Postlethwaite) gives him a bag full of magical "crocodile tongues."  He tells James that these glowing green macaroni worms are the key to making marvelous things happen, and not to let them escape.  However, seconds later, James trips and the tongues run free, working their magic on the insects and peach tree in his aunt's yard.  Before his very eyes, the peach grows to the size of a house, and after befriending the now giant-sized bugs that reside inside it, James uses the peach to go on an adventure to New York City and escape his horrible life.

"That's the life for me..."

James and the Giant Peach is mostly a whimsical movie, but there remains an underlying darkness that keeps the film interesting even if the end product isn't necessarily cohesive.  What helps keep the film afloat is the colorful array of characters present in the form of the giant-sized stop-motion bugs.  The Centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss) is a Brooklynite who... wait Richard Dreyfuss? Really? That's pretty awesome.  The Centipede likes to talk big but doesn't always have the experience to back it all up, and for being the only supporting character with any character growth, he's probably my favorite of the bunch.  Also along for the ride is the sophisticated Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the motherly Miss Ladybug (Jane Levees), the cool, calm, and French black widow Miss Spider voiced by Susan Sarandon (wow, I never knew this cast was so star-studded!), the neurotic Earthworm (David Thewlis), and the old and deaf Glowworm (Miriam Margoyles again).

"Bright lights... Big city..."

When I talk about darkness, I'm talking about over-the-top cartoonish darkness, mainly in the form of James' aunts.  They're positively evil from their design to their dialogue, making James' suffering less realistic and probably more suitable for the target audience.  I just can't help but feel that Matilda, and later Harry Potter, were able to find the right tone to find for their abusive guardian stories in their film adaptations.  While we do see that life with his aunts is torturous (come on... you've gotta feel bad for him when he's eating those chips like they're the greatest thing he's ever had), but the aunts are caricatures without an ounce of subtlety.  The actresses are perfect for the roles though, and I still get a chuckle out of a few of their lines.  The scenes of the rhino barreling through the clouds and lightning produces the film's scariest imagery, and it's quite a beautiful thing to see in motion.

"They never did catch that rhino..."

James and the Giant Peach utilizes a Wizard of Oz-esque technique wherein the hero is whisked away to the "special world" of the film something about the filmic aesthetic changes; just like the land of Oz is a world of color compared to Dorothy's black and white world, James' world changes from live action to stop-motion when his giant peach-themed adventure begins (and his head gets really huge... I always thought that was odd...).  Like with Nightmare, the stop-motion is fantastic.  I do think it shows its age in spots (those are some stiff seagulls), but other times it's so seamless I forget I'm even watching stop-motion.  I imagine the ocean water is CGI, but the way it's designed and moves works seamlessly with the puppet animation.  I was particularly impressed with an underwater scene, even if the context didn't make much sense and one of the skeletons on a sunken pirate ship is a very lazily redressed Jack Skellington model.

I don't know nothin' about no skellingtons...

The story really is the weakest part of the film, at least from my jaded, adult perspective.  The plot just meanders too much; the characters interact, they fight off a random-ass giant mechanical shark, then they're hungry, so they start eating their ship (which has no consequences), then they need a compass so they get it from zombie pirates, then they sing about how much they love each other, then they're in New York...  there's no tension escalation.  Did it need to be more complex? Not at all.  But there needed to be a bit more context for the things that happen to them.  For instance, where did the giant, mechanical shark come from? And what is it doing? Did Spiker and Sponge drive all the way from Britain to New York underwater?  What's the story behind that?  And a rhino ate his parents.  A rhino in the clouds. That's really all we need to know?  In the book, it was a crazed rhino that escaped from the zoo that killed his parents.  It still doesn't make sense, but at least we have a bit more to work with.

Gettin' peach-wasted...

It doesn't help that Randy Newman's songs aren't particularly good.  They all work in their moments (especially during the "everyone eats the peach" song), but they are awfully saccharine.  They're very sweet-natured, and believe me when I tell you that I like to see a non-cynical kids' movie especially in today's world.  But man, "My Name is James" is a chore to get through, with its forgettable tune and insipid lyrics.  This is supposed to be the movie's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it falls flat on its face.  I really like Newman's songs in Toy Story and Princess and the Frog, so I'm not really sure what happened here.  At least the score is nice to listen to, even if it doesn't exactly stay with you.

"We're family..."

You have to use a lot of kid logic to enjoy James and the Giant Peach, and you have to get into the whole "wish fulfillment by getting back at my evil guardians!" thing as well.  Even if you can't get into the story, and want every song to end as soon as it begins, the film has tons of charm and darkness to entertain and excite you.  And kids? This is a perfect movie for them.  They'll be drawn in by the characters, the visuals, and the offbeat adventure (not to mention they'll be rolling at some of the jokes).  It has a good message about conquering your fears head on, and standing up for yourself to people who are trying to keep you down in your place.  James isn't a complex character, but he exists more as an avatar for the young audience (and despite Paul Terry's odd inability to pronounce the letter "R," his performance is pretty good).  Watching the film at my age brings back so many memories... I couldn't believe how well I remembered the dialogue and songs, bland as they are.  It's a charming little movie that had a bit more potential than it delivers, but still entertains and even impresses on a technical level.

Creepiness score: 6 scary-as-hell spiderweb beds out of 10.

Movie score: 6/10