Combustible Celluloid
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With: (voices) Paul Terry, Pete Postlethwaite, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, David Thewlis, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves
Written by: Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, Steve Bloom, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Directed by: Henry Selick
MPAA Rating: PG for some frightening images
Running Time: 79
Date: 04/12/1996

James and the Giant Peach (1996)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Strange Fruit

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When director Henry Selick made The Nightmare Before Christmas, he was under the shadow of Tim Burton. Audiences believed they were watching the vision of the man who created Beeltejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Now James and the Giant Peach is here to announce the arrival of a new visionary.

James and the Giant Peach is, of course, adapted from the book of the same name by the great Roald Dahl. Dahl's work is dark and funny and nightmarish and endlessly imaginative. Many parents have trouble with Dahl's stuff, but children love it. They love to be challenged and frightened by ghoulies in the dark. Unfortunately, Disney studios is run by adults and not children. The adults tried to put the "Disney touch" on certain small aspects of the movie, while Selick battled for Dahl's vision.

In the end, they have a very satisfying movie. Disney's changes aren't all that offensive. In the book, James' parents are killed by a real rhino, escaped from the zoo, while in the movie they are killed by a mythical rhino in the clouds. The movie also has some nonsense about "trying to look at things a different way" that's not in the book. But these are trifles and don't ruin anything.

Randy Newman provides the music, and it's no better or worse than Danny Elfman's stuff in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He even manages to adapt some of Dahl's original poetry to music. (The poem about the icky things the bugs eat is intact as a song.) It's really too bad that Howard Ashman died, because his songs were the main thing that injected life back into Disney's tired old musicals. Newman's original stuff is passable, but it just doesn't have much life.

Additionally, we get some great vocal performances from Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and David Thewlis (Naked). I don't want to tell you who performs which character, because they were all so good, I was fooled. Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father, The Ususal Suspects) plays the narrator and a live action character as well.

The claymation is just as stunning as in The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it doesn't break any new ground. This isn't really a bad thing; we've still got a fantastic looking movie.

Selick throws in some great looking live action stuff here as well. (James starts out and ends up as a live boy, not a claymation one.) Selick shoots the live stuff with a sure hand, possibly a calling card so he can move on to live action films that would be less time consuming.

Even if that's the case, I hope Selick continues to dazzle us with his imaginitive work.

In 2010, Disney released a deluxe DVD/Blu-Ray Combo Pack. Extra features include a new interactive game, a making-of featurette, a Randy Newman music video, an image gallery, and a trailer.

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