Over / Under: James and the Giant Peach
by Matt Goldberg
February 10, 2008
Over / Under is a new weekly column that looks back at films of the not-too-distant past and sees how time has treated them. Which films are over-rated and which are under-rated? What's mandatory viewing that isn't so mandatory? What cinema cult should you join or which should you avoid? I'm sure this column will piss a lot of people off so before that happens, I'd like to start with a positive review…
Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, Tim Burton's stamp is unmistakable, but he didn't direct it) is deemed a classic and rightly so. The songs are fantastic, the design is sublime, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. But the best aspect is the stop-motion animation. If there's one thing I lament about the over-use of computer animated films, it's that it pushes out not only traditional hand-drawn animation but stop-motion animation. Selick is the best stop-motion animator this side of the Atlantic (the other side would be the UK's Aardman Animations who brought us Wallace & Gromit). While Nightmare may be Selick's best-known film, he did another one a few years later based on a classic book by Roald Dahl.
James and the Giant Peach (1996) is a modern fairy-tale where the titular character (James, not the Giant Peach) is orphaned when his parents are killed by a runaway rhino (you read that correctly), and he's forced to live with his wicked aunts, Spiker and Sponge. But along comes a mysterious stranger who offers James a bag filled with magic, glowing, maggot-looking things. But before James can use their magic and go to the place where dreams come true (New York City), he drops the bag and the magic maggots end up creating a giant peach. When James enters the peach, he turns into stop-motion animation and encounters a group of bugs that have all been magically transformed into stop-motion and now have the ability to talk, play the violin, and other assorted tasks.
Rule #1: don't over-think a family film. I could just as easily mock Toy Story or The Wizard of Oz but I don't want to have to beat the shit out of myself. Yes, the film is silly, but it is genuinely enjoyable and that's due in large part to Selick. The look is completely different than Nightmare and Lane Smith's conceptual design really works well with Selick's animation. But before the film goes stop-motion, you can see Selick aching to go beyond the real-world as the "real-world" of James and the Giant Peach is barely-real to begin with. The backgrounds are simple, the colors stark, and clearly not of this world but also not the stop-motion where the film lives.
But what's truly interesting about James is that it's such a product of it's time in that it feels the arbitrary need to have songs and celebrity voices. Today, we still have celebrity voices but the songs are practically a relic. And it's the forced musical aspect that hurts the film the most. The songs kind of… suck. It makes you appreciate talented composers like Alan Menken and it also further enforces my belief that Randy Newman is garbage. I mean, his music is passable, but as a lyricist, he's the worst. Well, actually, Damien Rice is the worst, but he doesn't write music for films.
I try to look at this film and others I'll be reviewing without the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. If you don't have a deep love of stop-motion animation, then James and the Giant Peach may not work for you. It will certainly disappoint if you're expecting another Nightmare Before Christmas. But as a family film, it stands up rather well and if you have kids, it's not a bad flick to have in your collection after you've "lost" that copy of Shrek the Third.
Over / Under: UNDERRATED!
Next Week: Dangerous Liaisons