Nostalgiaville: “James and the Giant Peach”

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September 21, 2011 by abbyo

What I’m about to say is cliche, and not without a certain amount of bias, but please bear with me: children’s entertainment in the 90s was not what it is today. It was much better. Not all of it holds up of course (have you re-watched the “X-Men” animated series recently?), but the standout stuff for sure surpasses much of what’s on offer these days. Children’s entertainment when I was growing up took more risks. You had TV shows like “Animaniacs” that made regular references to Ken Burns and Perry Como in its jokes, something that most certainly wouldn’t fly today. And somehow, movies like “James and the Giant Peach” got wide releases and pulled in decent box office numbers. I am convinced that if “James” were to be released today in its current format (which would be unlikely), it wouldn’t be marketed to small children. It would be directed at older kids or nostalgic hipsters.

But, thankfully, Henry Selick’s movie was released in 1996, not 2011, three years after he directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” so “James” is a movie very much in that vein, softened a little to accommodate children who (like me) weren’t into “Nightmare’s” scarier bits.  Selick’s film has all the elements of your typical Disney production-animation, musical sequences, etc.-but adds a kind of rough-around-the-edges aesthetic and dark sense of humor that put it in a different mold entirely. It’s a movie I watched a lot as a kid, and while it may not be in the ultimate pantheon of Disney’s other musicals (say “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast,”) it’s definitely the coolest of the bunch.

“James” is still every bit as good as I remember it being—Selick’s artistry and refusal to condescend to younger audiences at the expense of good moviemaking have definitely helped the movie age well. Adapted from the classic Roald Dahl novel, it tells the story of a mistreated little boy who lives with a pair of nasty aunts who took him in after his parents were eaten by a rhinoceros (Dahl’s version says it escaped from a zoo, Selick turns the animal into a kind of spectral metaphor for fear). One day, after receiving a bag of magical crocodile tongues from an old man, James discovers a peach growing on his aunts’ long-dead tree. The peach grows to the size of a house; James eats his way inside it and discovers a colony of human-sized insects living in the place. They decide to make their escape, and float the peach across the Atlantic to New York City.

A word, briefly, about the strange frequency of anthropomorphized animals in children’s literature and entertainment: it sets up horribly unrealistic impressions for young children of creatures that are, in reality, very unpleasant indeed. The first time I ever saw a centipede, I was shocked to discover that it was a nasty little thing that looked nothing like the one in “James.” The first time I encountered a mouse, I was disappointed to find out that they were disgusting, dirty animals who spread disease and, unlike the characters in “The Great Mouse Detective,” did not inhabit cozy, well-decorated hidey holes, or wear spats. There were a few times during my viewing of “James and the Giant Peach” where my adult realism slipped in, and I kept thinking that if I were to enter a huge peach and discover giant bugs living inside, my reaction would not exactly be one of delight, and I probably wouldn’t stay to chat. But I digress.

It was also interesting to watch Selick’s movie after seeing “Coraline” when it came out a couple of years ago, going back and comparing the director’s earlier work to his most recent. I had been really excited to see Selick’s name attached to the project, knowing the pedigree that came with it, but was really disappointed in the final product. I was hoping for the Selick of “James” and “Nightmare, with beautifully detailed but dark and slightly stilted animation, something that looked like it was made by hand. Instead, the film looked so smooth and bright it that it could have been computer animation and I wouldn’t have known the difference. It was stop motion that felt unnecessarily mainstreamed, and seemed to undermine the excruciating process required to create it, something that further perplexed me, since it was such a major point of the movie’s marketing campaign. What’s the point of making loads of teeny flowers out of popcorn when you have to keep reminding yourself that’s what they are?

That being said, it’s interesting to watch the progression from one movie to the next, and note that the aesthetic of “James” had at least a little impact on the aesthetic of “Coraline.” For example:

James' aunts' house

Coraline's apartments

As a movie, “James and the Giant Peach” holds up very well, and continues to be a great children’s film on lots of levels. In context, the movie is also a neat little artifact; both a prime example of the uniqueness, occasional darkness and frequent whimsy of children’s entertainment in the 90s, and a look at the work of an extremely talented artist at the height of his abilities and popularity. It’s one that I hope will continue to be an enduring classic and formative viewing experience for generations of young movie fans just the way it was for me.

Random Observations:

-There’s not much live-action work in “James,” but what there is works just as well as the animated parts. The casting of Joanna Lumley (of “Absolutely Fabulous”) as one of James’ aunts is inspired—the woman’s acting just oozes excessive selfishness and vanity. It also doesn’t hurt that she and Miriam Margoyles (as James’ other aunt) look like Selick characters come to life.

-I know this is my over-innuendoed adult self talking, but live-action James first sinking his hands into the peach struck me as more than vaguely sexual. Between that and the human-sized bugs, I kept thinking that if David Cronenberg had made this movie, it would have made an interesting companion piece to “Naked Lunch” and “The Fly.” Also, it would have been completely inappropriate for elementary-aged children.

-Another odd note: If you take the metaphoric concept of Selick’s spectral rhino to its logical conclusion, you get the odd feeling that it’s a euphemism for committing suicide. Creepy.

– Fun fact: Lane Smith, the illustrator of “The Stinky Cheese Man,” “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” and countless other kid’s classics, was an art director and concept designer on this film, which makes perfect sense when you think about it.

-While Randy Newman’s songs for the movie don’t rank too high on the overall Disney playlist, they are really fantastic, especially “Family,” which is easily one of my all-time favorite Disney numbers, and the one I find myself humming on a regular basis more than any other.

-Some of you may argue with me, “Hey, Henry Selick didn’t direct ‘Nightmare,’ Tim Burton did.” That’s incorrect. Burton produced and came up with the idea for “Nightmare.” Selick did all the legwork.

-One more final note (lots of notes this week): Stay after the credits for an uber-creepy easter egg. I never noticed it until I was older, but it gave me the willies, just the same.

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