Henry Selick's follow up to the amazingly successful A Nightmare Before Christmas didn't quite take the world by storm the way the Tim Burton produced exploits of Jack Skellington (who actually does sort of have a cameo in this film if you pay close attention) and company did, but his adaptation of Roald Dahl's James And The Giant Peach is still a pretty impressive work of art. Once again produced by Tim Burton, the film, like the book, follows the exploits of a boy named James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry handles the voice work), tragically orphaned when his mother and father are killed in a storm. With nowhere else to go, he's sent off to live with his two mean spirited aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes). Thing aren't looking so rosy for poor James until he meets up with a strange old man who bequeaths to him a bag containing crocodile tongues. When he drops the tongues, accidently of course a giant tree begins to take root from which grows the biggest peach you've ever seen - right there in the plain, old, ordinary garden.
While James is quite taken with this giant peach, his two nasty aunts decide that there's some money to be made here, and so they quickly exploit this new phenomena and market it as a tourist attraction. Eventually, James makes his way inside the peach and soon enough decides that he's going to make it his new home. Inside the fruit, he meets all manner of interesting characters, seemingly all of whom are talking bugs (and voiced by the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Susan Sarandon and Jane Leeves), but trouble arises when the peach starts to move, rolling quickly towards the ocean with all of his new friends inside.
Although some live action footage serves to bookend the film, the vast majority of the picture is told in the stop motion animation style similar to that employed in the better known and aforementioned A Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that this picture will inevitably forever live in the shadow of. That said, while it may not stand out the way that picture did or have carved its own pop culture niche thanks to mass marketing in Hot Topics around the country as that picture did, James And The Giant Peach is a very impressive film in its own right. The art direction is excellent, retaining just enough of producer Burton's gothic-inspired vision to ensure that there are lots of creaky trees and quirky characters to keep things visually interesting, but never to the point where it overshadows a fairly touching story about a boy trying to adjust to his life and find himself. Like Dahl's source material, the film finds the right balance between bizarre childish nastiness and sincerely sweet, even na´ve, ponderings resulting in a film that is equal parts entertaining and genuinely moving. We like James from the start, seeing in him enough drive and understanding his situation to the extent that it's easy to feel for him and appreciate his predicament. As such, his journey into the world that is the peach becomes one that we're happy to accompany on, as we can completely understand why he's want to hide away from Aunt's Spiker and Sponge. The voice acting, all of which is handled by a very capable cast of performers, further cements this, delivering enough pathos when required that we feel it when Selick wants us to, but not at the cost of humor or entertainment value and never to the point where it over saturates the film with that tepid sugary sweetness that ruins so many kids films for adult viewers.
The animation style employed in the film holds up incredibly well, even by modern standards, proving that there are some things computers can't always improve on. Yes, there are spots where some of the effects work does show its age but the vast majority of the time the film feels just as fresh and creative and inventive and original in its style and execution as it always has - a testament to Selick's talent with this type of filmmaking. The musical numbers may feel a little forced, but this is a Disney production after all and we kind of expect that going in (or at least some of us do), so they are at least inoffensive and don't take us completely out of the film all together. Selick would follow this film with Monkeybone, which didn't do very well, before returning to form with a brilliant adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline. While technology has changed a lot since James And The Giant Peach was made, Selick's style remains as impressive as ever.
Ultimately, James And The Giant Peach isn't likely to be the film that Henry Selick is remembered for, but it is an excellent adaptation of Dahl's beloved book and a wildly inventive and entertaining picture that shows some creative design work and showcases some strong voice acting. It holds up really well and is a great film for family viewing that can still just as easily be enjoyed by adult audiences as well.
Disney presents James And The Giant Peach in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer that maintains the film's original 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. A fine layer of film grain is noticeable right from the start but this doesn't come at the cost of detail or sharpness. Texture looks very strong, detail as well, in both the foreground and the background of the picture. Colors are good and black levels are as well, with nice shadows and no evidence of compression artifacts to complain about. If you've seen the movie before and are aware of some of the stylistic choices that were made while making the picture, you'll be quite pleased with how the film looks on Blu-ray as it does offer a substantial upgrade in picture quality from the standard definition release. If you haven't seen it before, you might not be quite as impressed as the colors don't constantly leap off the screen and the image sometimes leans towards the dark side of things, which can cause a little bit of flatness here and there. The HD clarity points out that some of the effects work looks better than others but you can't fault the film for beginning to show its age, rather, for some of us at least, this will add to the charm. Overall, this is a strong transfer that does a good job of replicating the source material it was culled from.
The primary mix on this Blu-ray release is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, though alternate language tracks are provided in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. Optional subtitles are offered in English SDH, French and Spanish. AS far as the 5.1 MA track goes, it's a good one. It's quite an active mix with a lot of discernable surround activity from all channels. Dialogue is always clean and clear and easy to understand and the levels are balanced perfectly. The score has just the right amount of poignancy to it and it punctuates the storyline very effectively here as you're able to very clearly make out the different instruments used in the music. There's a strong low end when the movie calls for it, strong enough that you'll certainly notice it but never overpowering, while the higher end frequencies are succinct and crisp without any noticeable hiss or distortion to complain about. All in all, the audio on this release is very strong.
There really isn't all that much here in terms of extras, and the only 'new' supplement that appears on the Blu-ray is an interactive game called Spike The Aunts in which you smack some ants around with a rhinoceros horn in order to score points. It might amuse kids for fifteen minutes or so, but outside of that, it's nothing to write home about. Disney has carried over a few other supplements from the standard definition release, however, including a brief Production Featurette (4:34) that is basically a glorified advertisement for the film that was released before it hit theaters. A trailer for the film, a music video for 'Good News' by Randy Newman and a few still galleries round out the supplements. Aside from the game, all of this material is in standard definition.
As is typical with Disney's Blu-ray releases, there's also a standard definition DVD version of the film included. This will annoy those who already own it on standard definition who want to upgrade at the lowest price possible, but potentially please those who don't already have the film on DVD who may have kids who might want to watch it on a portable DVD player or something like that.
Why Disney hasn't given James And The Giant Peach more love in the extra features department is a bit of a mystery but skimpy supplements aside, this is a good package for fans of the quirky film. The picture quality and improved audio clarity are going to be the key selling points here for most people and in those departments this release impresses. Even if the film doesn't look as pristine as the latest and greatest Pixar movie, there's still a load of detail here and the film's unique visual style is really well reproduced in high definition. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.