James and the Giant Peach (1996) – Disney Movie of the Week

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This week’s Disney Movie of the Week is from the mid-90’s, the Disney animated renaissance had reached its zenith and was on its way down. The rest of the studio’s output was hit or miss during this period. Was this weeks’ pick “James and the Giant Peach” a hit or a miss? Financially the movie almost broke even, so not a hit but it struck a chord with me at the time. It didn’t fare so well this time around. Read on for more…

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Before I continue I should state that I watched the movie on Netflix Instant and was not impressed with the video quality. The same thing happened to me with “Nightmare Before Christmas“, for some reason the versions of these movies aren’t HD and look like VHS copies. The poor video quality contributed to me not enjoying “James and the Giant Peach” but was not the only reason. This is definitely a movie I put off ever watching again because I was afraid it wouldn’t hold up.

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The movie is bookended by two live action segments that are shot in a highly stylized manner, with sets that look like they are shoebox dioramas. I can understand that as an aesthetic choice but in the frame of the narrative it’s little more than window dressing. How can we differentiate the real world from the fantastical animated world if the real world looks just as cartoony? It would be like Dorothy going from a Technicolor Kansas to a slightly more Technicolor Oz.

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Henry Selick directed this movie, his direct follow-up to “Nightmare Before Christmas”, and his animation work is spectacular. Arguably better than “Nightmare”, technically and visually. His live action work was pretty lacking, primarily focused on creating fancy sets but not much to fill them with. That could be the script’s fault but I don’t care for any of the live acting in this movie and with the likes of Pete PostlethwaiteJoanna Lumley I find it hard to blame them. Also while I enjoyed his voice performance, Paul Terry as James in the live action segments is kind of hard to look at. He’s not a cute kid.

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A movie that kept springing to mind was “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971), another movie based on a Roald Dahl novel. That’s a movie that might not have strived to hit Dahl’s tonal balance of darkness and humor, yet managed to find a tone all on its own that is dark, warm, funny, and still feels timeless. If anything “James and the Giant Peach” is a tonal mess with the animated segments being too light and fanciful and the live action parts too dour.

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There are a few things I liked of course, besides the animation. I liked the mechanical shark, I thought that was a clever concept, making a shark truly an eating machine. I enjoyed Randy Newman‘s songs, catchy and fun but not too catchy to get stuck in your head. I still enjoyed all of the voice performances, Richard Dreyfuss as the “Centipede” made me laugh a lot as a kid, he was edgy for me back then. I also liked Jack Skellington‘s cameo, even if it was a bit self-serving. Overall I wish I would’ve left this movie in the folds of my memories, recommended to hard-core fans of the book and Henry Selick only.

Should I give in to nostalgia and change my mind? What do you think?

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