Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Director Report Card: Henry Selick (1996)

2. James and the Giant Peach

While “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was not a huge hit right out of the gates, Disney was obviously pleased with it. Not long afterwards, Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise De Novi went to work on a new project. Their next project was “James and the Giant Peach,” a somewhat loose adaption of a book by Roald Dahl. Though the film maintains some of “Nightmare’s” visual sensibilities, the movie was an opportunity for Selick to step out of Burton’s shadow and make a film that was totally his own.

Roald Dahl was the Children’s Book Author Who Didn’t Fuck Around. The film “James and the Giant Peach” lightens the book’s darkness somewhat but only somewhat. James’ happy life with his parents still ends suddenly when Mom and Dad are killed by a runaway rhino. Though in the film, the rhino is a giant black specter instead of an escapee from the zoo. James goes to live with his aunts, Sponge and Spiker. The film is less forthcoming about the aunts’ abuse but it’s obvious the boy is mistreated and miserable. Befitting the film’s fable like tone, that changes when a strange old man appears to James and hands him a bag of strange, green glowing objects. The squirm-y things cause a peach to grow to giant size. The bugs inside also mutate into more human-like form. Soon, James joins the insect on the peach and an adventure starts rolling along.

Despite mostly only taking the beginning and end from Dahl’s book, “James and the Giant Peach” maintains the strange fable-like tone that was the writer’s specialty. Dahl’s stories frequently occupy a strange world between harsh, realistic cynicism and childhood wish fulfillment. His writing frequently operates under the moral that the things will not always go your way – and the world will probably shit on you a lot – but the pure of heart will succeed in the end. This is very clear in “James” which is about a boy starting out in terrible circumstances but eventually, through a wacky adventure or two, his dreams come true. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, but the world still isn’t a nice place.

“James and the Giant Peach” was Selick’s first chance to make a feature without Tim Burton’s name overshadowing his own. The film shows Selick struggling to pull away from his former partner’s creative style. The character designs featured here superficially resemble Burton’s style. However, the faces are more rounded, the bodies fuller. The designs resemble the somewhat grotesque, original artwork of Nancy Ekholm Burket while still being wildly different from it. Selick’s trademarks are most noticeable in his innovative animation direction. Once again, the director is not content to simply have the stop-motion models move on sets. Instead, he presents brazenly cinematic shots and angles. A notable moment has James crawling into the peach, changing from a live action actor to an animated character in one shot. The inside of the peach proves an incredibly atmospheric setting and the way the cast of bugs is introduced features some beautifully realized lighting and effects.

However, the film does not entirely escape Tim Burton’s shadows. The Burton influence is most obvious during the opening, live action sequences. The aunts live in a house on the hill. The building is thin and twisting, seemingly following the natural curves of the hill its set on. The sky is always overcast and the whole area is painted in flat greys and black. Not only does the set design and decoration blatantly recall Burton’s films, the way the aunts are presented are reminiscent of the director’s other works. Actresses Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes both resemble illustration in Burton’s style. Lumley’s Aunt Spiker is tall and thin with harsh, sharp facial features. Margolyes is rotund and grotesque, with a pockmarked face and flabby arms. Both dress mostly in black and have their faces painted bright white by excessive make-up. When the film reaches New York City at the end, the Burton comparison becomes apt again. The metropolis is present as an art-deco painting, full of shimmering, vertical towers, each topped with glowing points.

While Selick’s animation direction is excellent, he doesn’t adapt to live action as well. The opening and closing sequences are obviously shot on sets and the director makes no attempt to disguise this. The sets are fantastic but the intentionally artificial lightning makes them appear much cheaper then they actually were. The director attempts to recreate some of his far-out angles with live actors, most notably during James’ encounter with Pete Postlethwaite’s strange old man. However, restrained by actual actors on actual sets makes the artistic attempts somewhat clumsy.

Its flaws aside, “James and the Giant Peach” is frequently a visually gorgeous motion picture. The movie’s fantasy storyline presents some truly memorable images. The peach rolling free from its tree and across the countryside is an elaborate, well carried-out moment. The massive fruit bouncing, just barely, over a church is an early highlight. The tunnels and interiors of the peach maintain that detailed, Earthly beauty that characterizes all of Selick’s films. Some of the film’s memorable moments are big and orchestrated. While the peach floats through the sky, the pink clouds around it form into the shape of teapots and pans. The “Family” musical number at the end has celestial bodies floating around the characters. An image that has always stuck with me is James and the Spider swimming through the Arctic waters, the characters and the ships being cast in shadows against the moody blue water. Other notable moments are more small, such as the Spider tucking James into a bed made of webbing or the frozen seagulls having the ice shook off their feathers. The movie is fantastically colorful too, full of bright blues, vibrant oranges and browns, and clear whites.

As a kid, what I loved most about “James and the Giant Peach” were two fantastic action scenes that make up the middle bulk of the movie. While crossing the ocean, the giant peach and its residents come across a huge, mechanical shark. The shark is one of the picture’s most clever creations, a steam-punk nightmare of harsh iron, billowing steam, and expanding manifolds. No explanation is ever given for the shark’s entrance into the story but it's still a hugely creative adversary. It’s gnashing mouth is a spinning tunnel of sharp teeth. It fires harpoons from a cannon in its nose, the projectiles shaped like smaller fish. The attack scene, which has the Centipede dangling precariously from the cord and each of the insects inside the peach coming to his aide, is exciting and beautifully pulled off. Plus, the sequence ends with a big explosion. There are few things more satisfying then that.

As great as the robot shark is, the haunted pirate ship is probably better. A trip in the Arctic has the film’s heroes exploring a downed ship in search of a compass. Before the Centipede can snatch the compass away, the skeletal pirates spring back to life, holding him captive. Though their role is small, each of the pirates are gifted with a personality and style of their own. The ship is full of nautical stereotypes, from a Viking, to an Eskimo, to even, most bizarrely, Donald Duck. The scene is moodily directed, shot in deep black and vibrant purples. The action is great too, comical without defusing the danger of the situation. The way the bodies spring around through the water recalls classic cartoon tomfoolery but the ghost pirates remain deadly threats, even coming close to chopping a character in two. And it doesn’t hurt that the pirate captain uses the same model as Jack Skellington, providing something of a cameo for Selick’s most beloved (co-)creation.

One of the most admirable attributes of Selick as a filmmaker is that, despite ostensibly making children films, his movies aren’t afraid to go to dark places. Aside from the harsh treatment James receives at the hands of his wicked aunts, two other elements of the film were sure to cause nightmares in young viewers. James is haunted by the huge, black specter of a wild rhino. The phantasmagorical rhino, which claimed his parents’ lives, seems to be a metaphor for death. The creature, huge and unstoppable, appears out of nowhere, striking randomly. Though terrified by its initial appearance, through his adventure and his new friends, James builds up a new courage. The story’s climax, the boy standing up against the giant beast, is symbolic of a traumatized child learning to conquer his fear of death and move on from his past traumas.

Another memorable bizarre and macabre scene is a nightmare James has his first night on the peach. Brought to life through an oddball combination of stop-motion, traditional animation, and paper cut-outs, James sees himself as a caterpillar peacefully munching on a leaf. Until his vile aunts appear, both visualized as the objects they’re named after. The deadly rhino appears again in this scene, as a giant black cloud of death that destroys everything in its path. The boy runs from the beast, hiding in an alcove before being cornered. Considering the sequence contributes little to the story, beside reminding the viewer that James’ troubles are far from over, I wonder if it wasn’t placed in the film simply to freak out the young ones in the audience.

The colorful cast of characters is easily one of the most endearing elements of the picture. Each of the insects is essentially a cultural stereotype. The Centipede is a tough Brooklyn guy, suspender and cigar included. Richard Dreyfuss’ saucy vocal performances help defuses the fact that the character’s brass, egotistical personality causes most of the story’s problem. The Spider is probably my favorite of the bunch. She’s an artsy French type which is evident by the black-and-white strips on her body, the beret on her head, and the leather boots on all eight of her legs. Yet the character is weirdly maternal towards James. Her yellow eyes, each socket containing two pupils, are really neat. Susan Sarandon’s smokey vocals are nearly unrecognizable and perfectly suited to the character. The Grasshopper is an English intellectual, with his monocle, tailored suit, and his love of classical music and the arts. Though not beyond haughty attitudes, the Grasshopper remains a lovable character. The Ladybug is everything that’s nice about old English ladies, sweet and matronly though not without a tough streak. The neurotic Earthworm probably gets the most laughs of the cast, as he’s constantly worrying about death and decay. David Thewlis’ shaky English accent is well suited to the part.

 “James and the Giant Peach” is a musical, with words and music provided by Randy Newman. While watching the movie, I recall thinking that the lyrics were repetitive and not Newman’s best work. However, the melodies have been stuck in my head ever since watching the flick. “That’s the Life for Me,” which sets the film’s journey towards New York in motion while also establishing each of the cast’s personality, is probably the best number in the film. “Eating the Peach” is probably the least essential song in the film, as it doesn’t advance the plot much. However, the song is incredibly catchy and the nonsense lyrics are quite memorable. The repetitive lyrics are most notable during “My Name is James,” a melancholy number introducing James’ hopes and dreams. Newman’s talent for catchy hooks, quirky lyrics, and homey melodies make him a good fit for the story’s style.

“James and the Giant Peach” did not set the box office on fire upon release. However, like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” it found its audience on home video. This was another tape I frequently popped into the VHS player. It’s not a film I think about very often yet, upon rewatching it, I found an amazing amount of the film stuck in my brain. The funniest things make an impact on us as kids. It’s a solid work from Selick though probably his most middle-of-the-road film. If that’s true, it’s still pretty good, a charming, interestingly detailed children’s fantasy full of unique, lovely visuals. [Grade: B]

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