Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lost Animation - James and the Giant Peach

Congratulations to our latest trivia contest winner asatira, who gave both the correct name of Louie the alligator's band in The Princess and the Frog and its connection to Disney history. "The Firefly Five Plus Lou" is a play on The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland jazz band whose members were also Disney Studios employees including famed animators Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas. The band has made a few cameo appearances in various cartoons and behind-the-scenes films, but this nod struck me as particularly sweet and appropriate.

Check out the latest trivia contest following the article.


After seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox, I started thinking about the other Roald Dahl book that was adapted into a puppet animation film. Released three years after the groundbreaking Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach was director Henry Selick’s second film. Unlike its predecessor, the film was not a financial success and has largely been forgotten since its release. I remembered seeing the movie in theaters, but not since, and looked forward to seeing how the film held up. The answer is “quite well,” though it does have a weakness almost as big as the titular peach which may have been what caused the film to fall into obscurity.

Like the book, the movie tells the story of a young boy named James Henry Trotter. James is a happy child with a loving family, until the day his parents are devoured by an escaped rhinoceros (a detail taken directly from the original tale.) The newly orphaned James is sent to live with his two horrible aunts Spiker and Sponge, who feed him fish heads, treat him as their personal slave, and never let him play with other children. The closest thing James has to a friend is a spider that spins a web in his window one day, a friend he soon loses when he has to get her out of the house and yard to save her from his insect-hating aunts. James’s salvation comes in the form of a mysterious old man who presents him with a bag of enchanted crocodile tongues and the promise that the wriggly little green things will bring magic into his life. But before he can put them to work, James trips and spills the crocodile tongue at the roots of a peach tree. The tongues work their magic and the formerly barren tree produces on enormous peach. Spiker and Sponge turn the peach into a local attraction and start selling tickets, locking James away in the house during the day so he can’t play with any of the children who come to see the peach and making him clean up the garbage they’ve left behind by night. While he works, James discovers a hole in the side of the peach and climbs inside. He discovers six enormous talking bugs, all transformed by the crocodile tongues, living inside the peach. When Spiker and Sponge come looking for James, the Centipede cuts through the peach’s stem and sends it rolling away toward the ocean. From there, James and his newfound friends embark on a voyage to Manhattan, the city that James’s parents had once promised to take him to.


I usually like to discuss the positive aspects of a movie before the negative ones, especially when it’s a movie that I like overall. But the biggest problem with James is that it starts out with its weakest material. The first part of the film is live-action; the switch to animation takes place when James enters the peach. This was not the original concept for the movie. Selick had wanted to use puppet-animation throughout the movie and use a live actor only for James. Despite their eagerness to work with Selick again, Disney balked at the price of this idea and Selick’s next suggestion of doing the entire film in animation. So the use of live-action was a compromise. Sadly, it’s a compromise that doesn’t quite work because the live-action segments are terrible. The acting is unconvincing, the production values are garbage, and even the peach looks more like a big, painted, prop than anything. The sets may be the worst part of the whole mess. They look shockingly insular and unconvincing. Now I don’t mean “insular” in the way that they’re supposed to feel insular because James is stuck in this ugly little house with a walled-off yard that he can’t escape from. I mean “insular” in the sense that the sets never feel like they’re anything more than sets, never convinced me that there was anything to this world beyond what the camera was seeing. As for “unconvincing,” I’m somebody who loves really out-there, imaginative set design. I like matte paintings and digitally treated film and all the other tricks that can make the setting of a movie look like a painting or a woodcut or some other place that isn’t quite the real world. But that isn’t the case here. Stone walls feel like Styrofoam, rooms feel like dressed-up sets instead of real places, and the aunts’ overgrown yard looks like a set designer trying to make a stereotypical overgrown yard. The look of the live-action segments has neither realism nor a specific aesthetic it’s chasing. Before long, I was feeling just as anxious as James was to get out of this awful place. But my feelings came from frustration with the terrible design rather than sympathy for the character.

I should mention that Paul Terry, the young actor who plays James, isn’t half bad. He’s not overly cute and speaks with only the slightest hint of a lisp. His singing voice can be a little annoying, but thankfully, he only has one solo song that comes very early in the film. James’s character doesn’t progress all that much beyond “lonely little orphan,” but he is likable enough and seldom grating. There was a moment where I worried that James was going to be one of those kid heroes who is the hero solely by virtue of being smarter than a bunch of characters who aren’t very bright, the part where James realizes that the peach can provide the travelers with sustenance as well as transportation. But his other ideas, such as harnessing seagulls to pull the peach out of the ocean to save it from attack by a mechanical shark, seem genuinely inspired. The kid may not be a great actor, but compared to many of the other live-action cast members or that kid who plays Edmond in Rock-a-Doodle, he’s amazingly talented.


The live-action portion of the film is a slog, no question. But once the animation starts, it’s all worth it. Fans of Nightmare Before Christmas will find the same lush, inventive, charming animation that Selick and his crew are known for. But this isn’t a visual retread. Along with the imagery from the Roald Dahl book, the film takes inspiration from Lane Smith, the illustrator whose art graces such subversive children’s classics as The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, who served as art director for the movie. Smith’s distinctive style can be found all over James’s insect pals, right down to the tiny peg-shaped teeth that the Centipede and the Grasshopper both sport. Both the characters and the backgrounds boast an incredible level of detail and texture. One of the film’s best scenes comes when the bugs get their first taste of the peach and dance around singing its praises. All the while munching, shaping, juicing, and otherwise enjoying glistening gobs of the fruit that literally look good enough to eat. It’s strange that in a film that contains both live-action and puppet animation scenes, the live-action bits would feel unrealistic while the animated sequences are surprisingly convincing.

The insects give the film much of its warmth and appeal. Despite their being six of them, they all manage to have unique personalities and something interesting to do with the possible exception of the Glowworm, who is mainly a partially deaf light source. The Old Green Grasshopper is a cultured, monocle-wearing gentleman who prefers playing the violin – with two bows, thanks to his extra pair of arms – to producing chirps like his insect brethren. The Centipede is a multi-armed Brooklyn tough guy, prone to bragging and a natural antagonist to the sophisticated Grasshopper, but good-hearted nonetheless. Mrs. Ladybug is a sweet, grandmotherly type, while the Earthworm panics at a moments notice.


For me, the standout of the cast was Miss Spider. Voiced by Susan Sarandon doing her best Natasha Fatale, Miss Spider is a generically European Goth artsy type. She sports a black beret and high-heeled boots. Because of her carnivorous nature, she is the outsider of the insect group, a point that I wish had been played up a little more. But she loves James. She is, of course, the same spider that James rescued from his aunts and his act of kindness has won him her undying loyalty. While most of the other characters rally around James for his intelligence and their mutual hatred of his aunts, Miss Spider has a very specific relationship with him that is truly touching. It would have been easy to cast the natural mother Mrs. Ladybug in this role, but giving it to the spider is a far more interesting twist.

This movie was made during the time when pretty much any animated film – especially one released by Disney – was all but required to be a musical. Randy Newman, who had enjoyed an enormous success with Toy Story just a year before James premiered, provided the score, borrowing some of his lyrics from Roald Dahl. The songs are pleasant, except for the hero’s treacly introduction “My Name Is James.” But none of them really feel essential to the film or all that memorable.

I do have a couple of issues with the story that go beyond the weak live-action scenes. Some of Roald Dahl’s books can at times read like a series of descriptions or largely unrelated events and the movie doesn’t entirely escape this. The various obstacles James and the insect encounter are very entertaining and do sometimes work to highlight or develop the characters of the bugs, but James himself remains largely unchanged by his experiences. He does manage to recover one of the crocodile tongues , which seems to be linked to his discovering the hole in the peach. But aside from become a little stop-motion boy instead of a live-action one, he remains exactly the same. The movie asserts that James must learn to face his fears. But very few of James’s adventures deal with this idea. Most of his accomplishments center on problem solving rather than gathering his courage. There is a scene late in the film where James confronts a monstrous stormcloud version of the rhino that ate his parents, But the detail of the carnivorous rhino is so odd – even in a movie about a huge flying peach and oversized talking bugs – that the scene is more confusing than anything. James seems to be dealing with his fear come to life; he event yells out that it isn’t a real rhino. But since a real rhino did devour James’s poor parents, his battle with an imaginary rhino seems less than a full victory. I was just never convinced that James’s trouble hinged on anything but his situation. Standing up to Spiker and Sponge wouldn’t have done him any good without his big bug buddies there to back him up.


The movie does take one good stab at connecting James’s miserable life with Spiker and Sponge to his later friendship with the insects by having his aunt’s insulting nicknames for him all be insect related: “bug” or “worm” or the like. Later on, James has a cut-paper animated nightmare in which he is a caterpillar being chased by his aunts. It further cements James’s connection with the insects, but it still make it clear that James learns anything or grows into someone who is capable of changing his situation for the better. What he gains is the friendship of the bugs, and as we see when he rescues the then-tiny Miss Spider, he was always capable of being a good and caring friend.

So why didn’t James ever become the cult classic that Nightmare did? I’m not really sure. It has the same great animation, wonderful characters, and dazzling visuals as the previous film. It’s charming, and not overly kid-aimed. Maybe audiences who embraced Nightmare weren’t interested in a movie that didn’t feature Tim Burton’s work. He’s credited as a producer on James, but my impressions was that he was much less involved with this film than with Nightmare. Or maybe the movie didn’t have the same “Hot Topic appeal” as its predecessor. (Perhaps the advertising should have focused on Miss Spider.) Or maybe moviegoers were so turned off by the live-action that opens the film that they didn’t stick around for the good part. I don’t really know. What I do know is that, putting the live-action bits aside – this is a great little film that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets for its place in the modern history of puppet animation.

Trivia Time! I’m giving you an easy one this week. What character from another film has a cameo role in James and the Giant Peach? Post your answer in the comments. The person with the first correct answer gets a mention and a link in the next article.

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

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