Lowdown: A Burton-esque take on Dahl’s book.
As a young child eager to read books, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was one of my favorites in an era where I thought his Fantastic Mr Fox was the best book ever. Ultimately my taste has shifted, especially through an evolution towards science fiction and fantasy, but James was and still is a favorite. Thus, when opportunity presented itself and the James and the Giant Peach DVD stared back at me at our local toy library, I went for it.
For the record, as we’ve started watching this 1997 film, it became clear we’ve watched it not that long ago (as in but a few years ago). While, generally speaking, I am notorious for being able to watch a good film many more times and much more frequently than your average mortal, my familiarity with the material did have a surprisingly disappointing effect.
I am getting ahead of myself, though. James and the Giant Peach tells the story of a British boy called (wait for it) James. James lives in England, some time during the first half of the twentieth century; James is also an orphan, having lost his loving parents through a mysterious rhino attack. Now he’s living with two old and ugly aunts of his, who treat him the way Harry Potter is treated by his foster family (only worse): they don’t only enslave him to do their house work with minimal compensation, they try to subdue his dreams, too.
That is, until one day James puts his hands on some magic. The magic runs loose and James loses it, but there’s enough of it around to create a giant peach in the aunts’ yard. Escaping from the aunts, and with the aid of some renegade magic, James gets inside the peach, at which stage the film turns from live action to what seems to be stop motion animation. Inside the peach James finds a collection of friendly giant insects, and together they set off in a world encompassing adventure with the peach as their preferred mode of transportation.
There can be no doubt the story behind James and the Giant Peach is marvelous. It’s a kids’ story, no doubt about it, but it’s a good kids’ story. It is imaginative, easy to identify with, and it even lets kids look at insects in a way that is admiring rather than full of disgust. Compared to most of the stuff churned out by the movie studios nowadays for the children's market segment (check out the recently reviewed Chicken Little), James and the Giant Peach is obviously better by an order of a magnitude.
However, James and the Giant Peach is far from being a good film. Its biggest drawback is that Tim Burton touch: Although Burton did not direct this film, his touch is very evident all over the final piece. While some of Burton’s films are good, I tend to find the Burton approach detracts from the films rather than adds to them: the grotesque look on everything; the way things tend to look scary even when they shouldn’t, really; and that dark feeling everything has. They’re all too much. Add on top the much too frequent singing breaks, and James and the Giant peach can be unpleasant and boring to watch despite the magnificence of its story. To its credit, though, at around an hour and a quarter, it doesn't outlive its welcome.
Technical assessment: The picture on this DVD is so dreadful it is major contributor to my dissatisfaction with the film. Full of noise and looking pretty dead, this widescreen presentation DVD is not even anamorphic. This implies I have had to set my TV from widescreen mode to 4:3 mode in order to watch it properly, which then meant I had to endure black bars on the sides as well as at the top and the bottom of the frame.
Overall: A great story that didn’t migrate to film all that well and was very badly transferred to DVD. 2.5 out of 5 stars.