Blu-ray Review: James and the Giant Peach (1996) -- Special Edition

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The slightly surreal, often macabre yet surprisingly touching fictitious world of highly influential children's scribe Roald Dahl is one that naturally and rather successfully lends itself to cinematic adaptations.

This is particularly evident in playful live action interpretations such as Matilda and both adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as the inventive animated approach recently witnessed in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Unforgettably unique, Dahl's work makes the ideal jumping off point from one artistic medium into the realm of another, thanks largely in part because of his extraordinarily visual style of writing which paints the most exceptional pictures in our heads from something as little as a revealing turn of phrase or character trait to his grander descriptions of unorthodox settings and creatures.

It can be argued that Charlie was perhaps the author's most painterly and freewheeling book as it invited readers to absorb it by using nearly all of our senses as we imagined ourselves wandering around Willy Wonka's factory.

Yet the much darker yet simultaneously most Disney friendly work given the utilization of the company's oft-employed hero's journey paradigm along with their attraction to kid's fare featuring a cast of talking animal characters makes James and the Giant Peach an incredibly apt choice for the House of Mouse to bring to the big screen.

Summoning the talent of the same duo of former '80s Disney animators Tim Burton and Henry Selick who'd delivered the cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas for the company's Touchstone Pictures wing three years earlier, 1996's James and the Giant Peach features the same sort of slightly twisted ambiance of their earlier film that begins with a mercilessly cruel live action prologue that serves to set up the extended stop motion animation segment to come.

Having lost his parents in a freak offscreen rhinoceros attack near the start of the film, the young James (Paul Terry) is forced to live with his two wickedly selfish and utterly disgusting spinster aunts fittingly saddled with the unappealing names of Sponge and Spiker. To this end, when we first meet up the miserable boy following the tragedy, he's incredibly lonely, overworked, malnourished and so desperate for a friend that he talks to a spider on his window sill.

After a fateful encounter with a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite) who appears on the property bearing a bag filled with shiny green magical crocodile tongues, strange events begin to occur that start with the presence of an unspeakably large peach in their front yard.

Milking the anomaly for all it's worth by selling tickets to strangers and their children with whom James is never allowed to play, one night our fed up hero has had enough and reaches in for a piece of the peach only to discover a hole that doubles as an entrance to a strange and wonderful world filled with talking insects where true friends await.

As the film suddenly changes to a more breathtaking form of stop motion animation which somehow has the unplanned effect of improving Selick's movie to no end by suddenly making it far more adventurous and upbeat, James makes the acquaintance of the unofficial leader, Mr. Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss) along with Mr. Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), Mrs. Ladybug (Jane Leaves) and the rest of his tiny new pals.

Although it was completed before Pixar released a string of features that embarked on similar structural terrain as unlikely groups of friends banded together to form makeshift families while journeying to a new land, when witnessed today by this reviewer for the first time, James and the Giant Peach makes a terrific companion piece to the Pixar titles as perhaps the “black sheep” relative, considering its rather unsettling beginning.

Needless to say it's rare to root for the insects -- Antz and A Bug's Life aside – since the two evil aunts in the film are far nastier than any of the creepy crawlies you might find lingering around your own window sill but overall, this oddball musical adventure fantasy manages to win viewers over, most notably in a heartwarming final act.

Yet despite the high quality from Oscar nominated Coraline filmmaker Henry Selick, the Blu-ray presentation of the movie is unexpectedly substandard with a visibly grainy transfer that's especially apparent during the live action portions of the work and an unbalanced audio track that overwhelms you with sound effects pouring out of the back speakers yet meanwhile making it hard to make out the dialogue from the front.

When sampling a portion of the DVD which is included in the combo pack directly following the Blu-ray screening, I was alarmed to discover that there really wasn't enough of a difference that made it as immediately vital to pick up the high definition edition if you're a fan of the work and already own it in DVD.

However, even though the overall look of the film is dulled due to its lackluster visual presentation which again is incredibly apparent if you play the work in a Disney double feature after the superlative Blu-ray versions of other titles, thankfully the movie still remains memorable and thrilling given not just the brilliant creative vision of the filmmakers but the masterful source material from Roald Dahl as well.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.