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Featured Blu-ray Review: James and the Giant Peach

July 28th, 2010

James and the Giant Peach - Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack - Buy from Amazon

James and the Giant Peach came out nearly 15 years ago and was director Henry Selick's followup to The Nightmare Before Christmas. That film earned incredible reviews and managed to reach $50 million at the box office, despite never playing in more than 2,000 theaters or more. James and the Giant Peach earned nearly identical reviews and opened in many more theaters, but it struggled at the box office. Now nearly 15 years later, were the critics right, or the moviegoers?

The Movie

James, played by Paul Terry in is one and only movie role (he quit acting shortly afterward), lives a great life with his father and mother. That is until they are eaten by a Cloud Rhino.

"Eaten by a Cloud Rhino?"

The movie is based on a book by Roald Dahl.

"Now it makes sense."

So his parents are eaten and he is forced to live with his evil aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, who treat him as a child slave and not as a real person. He's forced to do all of the work, while he barely gets anything to eat, and he certainly doesn't have any friends. The aunts would never allow that. One day he meets a mysterious old man, who offers him a bag full of magic crocodile tongues, which will help bring the magic back into his life. But before he can use them, he drops them and they all scurry away under the dead peach tree in the front yard. The magic wasn't lost, as the tree then produces one peach, a giant peach. The aunts turn it into a tourist attraction, which makes them loads of money, but the magic that was supposed to help James was wasted. That is until he accidentally eats one of the crocodile tongues while eating a chunk of the peach. Knowing that if his aunts catch him eating some of their peach he will be in a world of trouble, he decides to hide inside the massive fruit, but in the process is turned into a stop-motion animated boy. Once inside the Giant Peach, he finds he's not alone and the crocodile tongues also had their magical effect on a boastful centipede, a snooty grasshopper, aa easily frightened earthworm, a motherly ladybug, a seductress spider, and a rather demented glowworm.

In order to escape from the evil witches, the centipede cuts the peach loose from the tree and it rolls down the hill and into the ocean. The group then decides to fly the peach (using captured seagulls as engines) to New York City, to complete the dream James had with his father. But it will be a dangerous adventure with a lot of peril to overcome.

It has been a while since I had seen James and the Giant Peach and right away I noticed it didn't quite live up to my memories in a few ways. The early live action sequences were a little off. The aunts were evil, but more grating than cinematic. Secondly, the songs were too Randy Newman and some of the musical numbers hurt the flow of the story instead of helping it along. Thirdly, some of the animation wasn't as smooth as I remembered. It's better than Bass / Rankin Christmas specials from the 1970s, but it's not as smooth as Coraline, for instance. To emphasize, it is very well done, but not as good as I remember.

That said, there are also some terrific aspects of this movie, including several action scenes that have a real sense of danger and adventure to them. The mechanical shark attack has a visual style to it that stands out, while the battle with the skeleton pirates is equally well done, plus it has a shout out to Jack from Nightmare, which is a fun inside joke. The sense of adventure is well-defined and there's real character growth here. There are plenty of good performances, including one by Pete Postlethwaite, who is a great actor. Also, while some of the musical numbers don't work as well as they should, the score itself is great.

Overall it is an easy recommendation, but 96% positive reviews seems high to me. 80% positive would be more reasonable in my mind.

The Extras

Most of the extras on the Blu-ray have been ported over from the previous DVD release, including a short making-of featurette that is mostly fluff, a music video, image gallery and trailer. The only new special feature is the Spike the Aunts Game that is based on the arcade game seen in the end credits. It's a simple game that's little more than an exercise in timing, but it's fun, for a while. Finally, the disc is BD-Live enabled with the usual stuff.

Moving onto the film's technical presentation, the video is good, but not great. The movie is full of grain and the colors are muted at times; however, these were artistic choices made by the filmmakers and shouldn't be held against the High Definition transfer. While the dream-like early sequences are on the soft side, the black levels are nearly perfect and this is easily the best the movie has looked on the home market. The audio is better with strong bass while the surround sound speakers get a real workout.

The price is a little high for this type of release, but you could argue it's $20 for the Blu-ray and $5 for the DVD, which is acceptable.

The Verdict

James and the Giant Peach is not as good as I remember, nor is is as good as its Tomatometer Score. That said, it is an easy recommendation and the Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack is worth picking up.

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