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James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition Blu-ray + DVD Combo Review

James and the Giant Peach movie poster James and the Giant Peach

Theatrical Release: April 12, 1996 / Running Time: 79 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Henry Selick / Writers: Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, Steve Bloom (screenplay); Roald Dahl (book)

Cast: Miriam Margolyes (Aunt Sponge, voice of The Glowworm), Joanna Lumley (Aunt Spiker), Pete Postlethwaite (Old Man/Narrator), Paul Terry (James Henry Trotter), Simon Callow (voice of Grasshopper), Richard Dreyfuss (voice of Centipede), Jane Leeves (voice of Ladybug), Susan Sarandon (voice of Miss Spider), David Thewlis (voice of Earthworm), Mike Starr (Beat Cop), Steven Culp (James' Father), Susan Turner-Cray (James' Mother)

Songs: "My Name is James", "That's the Life", "Eating the Peach", "Family", "Good News"

Buy James and the Giant Peach from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD New Standalone DVD Original Special Edition DVD


By Kelvin Cedeno

1996 must've been an exciting year for Roald Dahl fans. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was re-released to theaters for its 25th anniversary, and not one but two of Dahl's books received new feature film adaptations. While the latter of these, Matilda, was a straight live-action piece, the first, James and the Giant Peach, was a musical mixture of live action and stop-motion animation. Sadly, neither film made much of a splash at the box office. Then again, the only Dahl adaptation that has become a hit from the get-go was Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005. It's hard to say why Dahl's works, popular the world over, don't seem to reach the same success in the realm of cinema.

In the case of James, the result might not have been so surprising since its production team's similarly-made previous film, 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas, also came and went rather quietly. Over time, Nightmare has become a cult classic treated to five theatrical re-releases and no shortage of Hot Topic merchandise. James hasn't been quite so lucky, instead remaining something of an overlooked gem.

James' (Paul Terry) grotesque Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) rank among cinema's all-time most terrible guardians. Now in stop-motion form, James pops out of the peach to make sure the group is still heading to New York City.

Like the popular 1961 novel it's based on, the film centers on our titular hero (Paul Terry) as he's orphaned and left to live with his vicious Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes). The two regularly abuse and overwork James and do their best to stamp out his dream of getting to New York City. One day, James meets a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite) who gives him a bag of "green things" made from crocodile tongues and other strange ingredients. The man promises these things will help make James' dreams come true and lead him to a happier life.

When James accidentally spills them at the root of a dead tree, a giant peach as large as a house grows. A bite from it alters his appearance, and he finds insects living inside the peach who've grown to human size. Among these are the mysterious Miss Spider (voiced by Susan Sarandon), the crass Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), the stuffy Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the prim Ladybug (Jane Leeves), the paranoid Earthworm (David Thewlis), and the deaf Glowworm (also Margolyes). The group escapes the Aunts' home on the hill by means of the peach, rolling it into the ocean. Excited to learn they're sailing straight towards New York City, the gang soon faces many obstacles including sharks, pirates, and a figure from James' past who has haunted him since the death of his parents.

Centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss) emerges intact after a close call with bony pirates including Captain Skellington himself. Grasshopper (voiced by Simon Callow) teaches James a few things about insect music.

Directed by Henry Selick, who also helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas and later Coraline, James and the Giant Peach has become almost as neglected as its lead character. Coraline did nicely in theaters while Nightmare, as noted earlier, has grown in popularity. That leaves James as the one stop-motion Selick film still unable to tap into any wide audience or demographic. It's unfortunate because the movie is actually more charming than either of its siblings. While not literally faithful to Dahl's novel, it manages to evoke the author's distinctive voice and knack for whimsy.

Using live-action scenes to bookend the animated center is an interesting tactic that works well. Some have said that the live portions come across as crude and campy, but that's missing the point. They're highly stylized and theatrical, yes, but this is to ensure that the tone remains the same throughout.
The animated scenes are just as over the top and storybook-like, but these aspects are apparently more forgivable in stop-motion. Had the bookends been more realistic, the switch to animation would be far more jarring.

What really sells the material in both formats is the cast. One thing that can't be said of the characters here is that they're bland. Each makes an indelible impression and carries what is, admittedly, a pretty plotless tale. In his first and only film, Paul Terry is believable and sympathetic as James, careful not to fall into cutesy Hollywood child actor territory. Every one of the insects is cast superbly. There are some impressive names here, but unlike modern animated films that just allow high-profile actors to be themselves, everyone here provides genuine voice acting to the point where they're almost unrecognizable.

The stop-motion animation is quite smooth, impressive given its age. Character expressions are colorful and readable enough to match the equally lively voice work, but they're also subtle when they need to be. Miss Spider tucking James into bed and Grasshopper expressing himself through music are two of the film's most potent and understated scenes, working beautifully in their simplicity. Yet there are other memorable, sprightlier moments involving sharks and pirates that are well-staged. It's this balance between the low-key and outrageous moments that makes the story feel well-rounded.

Everyone digs into the obvious food source they somehow overlooked, while performing the song "Eating the Peach", directly adapted from the text. Besides narrating the story, Pete Postlethwaite appears as the enigmatic Old Man near both the beginning and end of the film.

There are five songs heard here, four of which are penned by Pixar favorite Randy Newman (the other is taken directly from one of Dahl's poems in the text). On one hand, they're catchy and charming, successfully matching Dahl's tone and characters. In fact, outside of the end credits song "Good News" he performs, they sound unlike anything Newman's ever composed. On the other hand, they feel like filler to bring the runtime over an hour. They don't stop the story dead in its tracks since the plot is extremely lightweight to begin with. They just don't seem as tightly woven as they could perhaps be, though the numbers nevertheless please.

Something a bit more questionable is the use of fantasy here. The famed giant peach itself and the human-sized talking insects make sense because they're spurned directly from the magical "green things." However, other elements have nothing to do with that. A shark attack from Dahl's book is re-imagined with robotic ones. An added shipwreck scene is filled with a living skeletal crew (that pays homage to Nightmare's Jack Skellington). Even more perplexingly, the rhinoceros that kills James' parents appears as some sort of supernatural cloud figure that all of the characters acknowledge. Had this all been a dream, the added fantasy would make sense, especially since they directly reference some of James' psychological fears and experiences. But having them present in the animated center when the live-action bits are (fairly) grounded in reality makes them a bit perplexing.

A motion picture of this sort doesn't need to be overanalyzed like that, though. Its winning cast of characters, striking imagery, and agreeable songs add up to enjoyable experience. The wittiness on display here coupled with some darker themes and subtext elevate James and the Giant Peach above many other animated films.

As marketable, visual-driven mid-range fare that could definitely stand to be revisited, James makes a relatively early Special Edition Blu-ray debut on Tuesday. Like all Disney-branded Blu-rays this year, this one includes a standard DVD as well, which won't be released on its own for another six weeks.

Buy James and the Giant Peach: Special Edition Blu-ray + DVD from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.66:1 Widescreen; Blu-ray: DTS-HD 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Most Extras Captioned and Subtitled in English, French, Spanish
Release Date: August 3, 2010
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Side-Snapped Blue Keepcase in Embossed Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Coming September 14th in New Standalone DVD

VIDEO and AUDIO

James and the Giant Peach comes to Blu-ray in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, slightly expanding the image vertically from the film's 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. The first word that comes to mind when seeing this transfer is "strange."

The good news... The film has never before been this detailed and crisp. The textures on the clay characters are incredible and show how much effort went into all the details. The picture is so crisp, in fact, that one can now see strings every time a character jumps in the air or throws a prop.
There's a noticeable level of grain here that some may balk at as it leaves things looking less glossy and pristine than, say, Nightmare or Coraline. Its presence only distracts in a couple of scenes, and otherwise it's a reassurance that the image hasn't been scrubbed to death.

Now for the negatives (and the bizarre). There are noticeable hairs and speckles that pop up on occasion as well as slight flickering. They're by no means terrible and unsightly, but given Disney's reputation for flawless Blu-ray transfers, their presence is unexpected. What's truly odd, though, is the color timing. Those familiar with the film will be shocked to see how much darker the picture is here than any on other previous home video release. The Aunts' foggy home on the hill has turned from gray to blue. James' hair in both live-action and animated forms now looks more brown than ginger. Conversely, shots that originally were supposed to be darker now look brighter, spoiling the big reveal of the insects and a gag in which they're all piled atop each other. Not having seen the film theatrically, I cannot claim whether or not this new color timing is more accurate. Nor can I say whether or not Henry Selick had involvement in this. All I can say from the standpoint of someone very familiar with the film on both VHS and DVD, this Blu-ray's presentation takes some getting used to.

While the picture is sure to divide viewers, the 5.1 DTS-HD is should please everyone. There are some very strong moments of bass and surrounds such as the peach rolling down the hill into the ocean and a climactic lightning storm. Even the dialogue takes advantage of the surrounds and is mixed directionally. This aspect is clear and concise, and the songs and score are broad and expansive. It's not an earth-shattering track, but it's a surprisingly strong one given the nature of the film.

Those most concerned with picture and sound might not pay much notice to the included DVD, but for the millions who are still pleased with that format, this combo is our only chance to assess its quality. Unlike the movie's one and only previous DVD (2000's questionably branded Special Edition), this one is enhanced for 16:9 displays. That alone is reason for celebration, even if the number of pixels going to the movie itself barely rises on such a relatively narrow film. Picture quality is undoubtedly improved and also clearly darkened. Most likely corresponding with the Blu-ray presentation, the video here falls short of perfection, getting marred by occasionally heavy grain and mild color fluctuation. And that picture is awfully dark. But it's also clean and generally satisfactory. Some of the busier live-action scenes exhibit some mosquito noise, a bit disappointingly considering how short the film is and how sparse the disc is.

Unsurprisingly dropped from the DVD is the old disc's DTS soundtrack. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does just fine, but I can't help but wonder if the less compressed mix (for which there is ample room here) wouldn't have been more dynamic and potent.

Aunts Spiker and Sponge don't look a great deal like either their live-action or end credit dummy selves in the Blu-ray's simple "Spike the Aunts" game. Henry Selick rocks a '90s center part and goatee while talking in front of his clay cast in the promotional Production Featurette.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The set's one exclusive and new bonus feature is the Blu-ray-only "Spike the Aunts" interactive game. Those who have stuck around through the end of the movie's end credits will recognize that this is based directly on that coda. The player uses the remote's "enter" button to control a rhinoceros and bash Aunts Spiker and Sponge as they rotate on a wheel.
While it's a cute idea to base a game on something that appears the film itself, the execution requires no sort of skill. Pressing "enter" quickly and repeatedly works just as well as waiting for the aunts to be in just the right place. As such, there's no replay value here.

The rest of the supplements originally appeared on the 2000 Special Edition DVD. Oddly, one of them is missing from the DVD included in this set and a different one is missing from the Blu-ray.

Found on both discs is a "Production Featurette" (4:33) (SD). This promotional piece from 1996 is basically an extended trailer. All-too-brief sound bites from director Henry Selick and a few voice cast members are interspersed with lots of narrated film clips and a few behind-the-scenes shots. While it's nice to have this for archival purposes, it can't come close to replacing a true "making of."

Randy Newman's "Good News" music video affords you an up-close and personal look at the singer-songwriter, though his portions are now windowboxed in contrast to the 16:9 film clips. This concept art piece of the gang singing "Family" is engulfed by one too many peachy borders in the Blu-ray's undersized art gallery.

Next is the "Good News" music video performed by Randy Newman (2:28) (HD). The video itself is nothing special as it's merely Newman in the recording studio intercut with film clips. The song itself is jovial and catchy, though. In an interesting move, Disney re-edited all of the film clips from the original video, replacing them with the new HD master. One hopes this sort of practice will become more common with archival featurettes and documentaries on future Disney releases.

The feature that didn't make it onto the new DVD but quietly slipped onto the Blu-ray is a still frame gallery. This is split into four categories: Concept Art (9 stills), Puppets (9 stills), Behind the Scenes (32 stills), and Live Action (18 stills). In what can only be described as strange and lazy, Disney failed to properly adapt the gallery for Blu-ray. They literally took the gallery in its 2000 DVD incarnation (thumbnail menus, arrows, and all) and dropped them inside a massive border. This renders the images tiny even on a decent-sized display. The studio could take the time and effort to replace the music video's film clips, but they couldn't rescan the gallery in HD or even present it in fullscreen SD? It goes to show to how thoughtless this release really was.

Only on DVD can you see how Disney cautiously originally marketed "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas", now one of its most beloved modern films, with Touchstone Pictures branding. Where have you seen this menu before? On the original 2000 James and the Giant Peach DVD. Only here, the picture is expanded to fill 16:9 screens and the old Disney DVD logo has been replaced with Disney FastPlay.

Both discs supply James and the Giant Peach's original theatrical trailer (1:27) (SD). Since that seemed like something that would easily be dropped off in the transition from DVD to BD, it's a relief to see it included here for posterity.

Finally, the theatrical trailer for sister film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1:29) is preserved only on the set's DVD and not the Blu-ray.

The lack of substantial extras is glaring. Henry Selick obviously loves bonus material. He recorded audio commentaries for both Nightmare and Coraline. He also introduced deleted scenes and partook in featurettes for both. That he couldn't have been brought in here for anything (especially after striking a long-term deal with Disney/Pixar this past spring) seems dubious. No one's asking for an elaborate set akin to Disney's Diamond Editions. A simple commentary, retrospective, and deleted scenes (if any exist) would suffice along with the included archival bits. There was even a segment on a Discovery Channel special shortly after the film's release that revealed how the rhinoceros was created using underwater techniques. Some of that footage would've been most welcome. It's obvious that this half-hearted release was merely a means of cross-promotion for Burton's Alice in Wonderland, but it's still saddening to see it treated so carelessly.

The Blu-ray disc opens up with a Disney Blu-ray promo, a Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue trailer, and an anti-smoking message via Pinocchio clips. Accessing "Sneak Peeks" on the menu leads to ads for Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition, Disney Movie Rewards, a Genuine Treasure anti-piracy, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Disneynature's Oceans and The Crimson Wing, Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition, A Christmas Carol, The Lion King: Diamond Edition, and Disney Parks.

The DVD loads with the family-oriented Disney Blu-ray promo, a coy Tangled teaser, trailers for Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue and Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition, and a Cruella De Vil anti-smoking spot. If you let FastPlay run, you'll be treated to a host of post-feature ads, for Disney Movie Rewards, Genuine Disney Treasure, The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary Edition, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Oceans and Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, Fantasia: 2-Movie Collection, A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland: Special 60th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, and D23. Otherwise, these previews can be seen after skipping through the disc-opening ones from the "Sneak Peeks" listing (the lack of a menu and individual trailer access is most glaring here).

The Blu-ray's main menu features the shoreline vista James can see from the hill. This features minor animation of birds flying and the ocean rippling. The pop-up menu is listed vertically within stylized borders reminiscent of the cover art. These expand sideways and contain sound effects from the "Spike the Aunts" game when toggling and entering. The loading icon features a dancing Centipede. The DVD's scored menus are now 16:9 enhanced but otherwise quite similar to the static screens on the movie's first DVD.

The two discs are contained in a standard Blu-ray case with side snap. This in turn in held a cardboard slipcover featuring a holographic border and embossment in the center. Inside the case are a Disney Movie Rewards code and a pamphlet for Disney Blu-ray combo packs.

Grasshopper, Ladybug, and Centipede are among those welcoming James with song and dance in "That's the Life", the first stop-motion animation sequence of Disney's 1996 film.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

James and the Giant Peach remains one of the more underrated films under the Disney banner. While it does feel a bit fluffed up to reach feature length, the memorable characters and animation make this a minor issue.

The Blu-ray, on the other hand, is peculiar. Sound quality is great and the picture is detailed, but the latter contains more print flaws than expected and a questionable color palette. The few supplements are almost all holdovers from the 2000 DVD with odd presentation tweaks.

Despite this shoddy Blu-ray treatment, James and the Giant Peach earns a recommendation based on the strengths of the excellent film. Those who already own the decade-old Special Edition DVD may want to rent this to see how they feel about it first.

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Related Reviews:
New: A Town Called Panic Henson's Place: The Man Behind the Muppets Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Directed by Henry Selick: The Nightmare Before Christmas Coraline (2-Disc Collector's Edition)
Tim Burton: Alice in Wonderland (2010) (Blu-ray + DVD) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Blu-ray)
Roald Dahl Stop-Motion Animation: Fantastic Mr. Fox (Blu-ray + DVD) | Labyrinth A Goofy Movie Enchanted
From the Screenwriters of James and the Giant Peach: The Spiderwick Chronicles The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy The Lion King
Music by Randy Newman: A Bug's Life Toy Story Toy Story 2 Cars The Princess and the Frog (Blu-rays)
1996: The Hunchback of Notre Dame Muppet Treasure Island Jack Boy Meets World: Season 3 Home Improvement: Season 5

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Reviewed August 1, 2010.

Film screencaps from DVD.