When Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas was released, critics raved and gushed, loving the wonderful music by Danny Elfman, the ingenious story by Tim Burton, and the intriguing, dark, visually stunning stop-motion of Henry Selick. It was compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Wizard of Oz, and other fantastic classics of the screen. Recent re-viewings certainly show that the film is holding up under this pressure, and is one of those films that so captures a wide audience's imagination that it is an "instant classic." (Disney writes this under the titles of all its animated features; it has not quite been true since Aladdin.)
The point of this introduction is to dispel any notion among those who are interested in seeing James and the Giant Peach that it is another wonderful concoction in which Elfman, Burton, and Selick put their heads together to create a modern classic. This is not to denigrate the film at all. But if anyone is expecting a film remotely similar to some idea of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas Part II: The Revenge, there is a large disappointment waiting at the theater.
Some have referred to the film congratulating Burton on his dark, startling imagery, commenting on his trademark techniques and story features, and his unique vision. But with James, as with the horrendous summer disaster Batman Forever, any credit or blame that is assignable to Burton is as a producer, not a director or creative consultant. The vision, the story, the style--all belong to Henry Selick, and he is due all the credit for the success of James.
As you can probably tell from the title, if you have not already read the ubiquitous Roald Dahl book upon which this film is based, it is the story of a young boy, James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry), and his adventures with a giant peach. If you don't want more of a basic plot set-up than that, you should probably skip the next paragraph.
James is trapped in a horrible life with his aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley of the BBC's fabulous "Absolutely Fabulous" and former Bond girl) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) when he is approached by "The Old Man" (Pete Postlethwaite), who offers him a sack of magic squirmy things which, he promises, will change everything. James drops the sack, however, and the squirmy things work their magic on a bunch of garden bugs and a peach tree, which produces a giant-sized peach. Magically, James is transformed into a stop-motion character and enters the peach to find the giant-sized bugs, who become his fast friends by the time the peach rolls down the hill and their journey begins.
Okay, no more spoilers, you can read on now. Excellent performances are given by nearly everyone in the film, though the live-action parts are the weakest and much of that is due to Lumley and Margolyes as the evil aunts. Paul Terry is a good actor, though, and he rescues the end of the movie with sheer enthusiasm. During the stop-motion middle of the film, the voices of the characters are provided by Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, Simon Callow as Old Green Grasshopper, "Frasier's" Glynis Johns as the Ladybug, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Richard Dreyfuss as Caterpillar and Margolyes as Glowworm. Sarandon, especially, adds a mystery and menace remarkable for a completely vocal performance. Dreyfuss is largely wasted. His awkward, loud Brooklyn accent could have been done better by any number of actors and come off as less annoying.
There is the sense, as well, that this is a very abridged, musicalized version of Dahl's book, and this is true. It means that much of the delightful conversation from the book is cut, minimizing the characterization of the bugs and so a lot of the emotional impact. It's not a fatal flaw, but it is a flaw. Also, there is a storytelling incompleteness: there should probably have been one more big stop-motion adventure episode to "round out" the structure. If you have not read the book, you should probably see the film first and then appreciate how much richer the book is. If you have read the book, do not hold the movie to the book's strictures.
But what really stuns about James are the visuals. The landscape is totally believable during the stop-motion segments (the live-action sets are less so). Combining computer animation, blue-screen effects, stop-motion, and live-action, James is sometimes blindingly good-looking. Where it falls down is in trying to make the live-action setting recall the stop-motion setting. Selick solves this problem by ignoring it, to the detriment of the film.
James ultimately is a success, but for reasons much different than those which made Nightmare a success. While it is true that James is much darker than the usual children's movie, it is nowhere near the dark vision of Nightmare. This film also succeeds largely in spite of its music, while Nightmare was decidedly a musical. In the end, the two films are so dissimilar that too much comparison is pointless. This film is Selick's vision while Nightmare was clearly Burton's.
A couple of things to look for: one character from The Nightmare Before Christmas does briefly return, but it is not nearly as cheesy as that little sentence makes it sound. And stay after the credits: it's not hard since Randy Newman's catchiest tune of the movie, "Good News," is playing, and there is a short live-action bit at the end of the movie which, though not brilliant, is worth staying for since the ticket has already been bought.
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