[2 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s always intriguing to play “what if”. It can be heartbreaking too. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the world of cinema. The history of the artform is littered with examples of “almost” movies: the lost musical version of James L. Brooks’ flop I’ll Do Anything; Jerry Lewis’ Holocaust ‘comedy’ The Day the Clown Cried; the unrated cut of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon. When Henry Selick was looking for a follow-up to his critically acclaimed collaboration with Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas, he had only one project in his sights - a take on Roald Dahl’s beloved book James and the Giant Peach. As it was under the House of Mouse tutelage yet again, music was mandated. The choice of composer, however, would wind up tarnishing an otherwise spectacular entertainment - and add fuel to another “what if” fire.
As the rightful heirs to The Beatles pop music mastery, England’s XTC were never a commercial success - not in their humble homeland and definitely not across the pond in the “colonies”. Cult would be stretching their regal reputation, yet frontman and center songwriter Andy Partridge was still a well respected gentleman of melody. When approach by Disney to craft some songs for James and the Giant Peach, he leapt at the opportunity. Putting together a demo of four fabulous tunes - “The Stinking Rich Song”, “Don’t Let Us Bug Ya”, “Everything Will Be All Right”, and the gorgeous ballad “All I Dream of Is a Friend”, it looked like his once downed boat of this genuine genius had been raised and his ship toward success had finally come in. But then Uncle Walt’s well-oiled suits did what they do best - they undercut Partridge on potential royalties.
As the Harlan Ellison of harmony (meaning he didn’t feel like giving away his brilliance for free), the musician played hardball. Disney unceremoniously dumped him, and went back to likeable lackey Randy Newman. The resulting soundtrack, will solid, has none of the charm or wit that Partridge brought to the table, and it’s a shame that the new Blu-ray release of James and the Giant Peach couldn’t find a way to reincorporate his work into the bonus features. It’s easy to see where the four tracks fit within the story - Partridge was clearly poised to satisfy his end of the bargain. Of course, in the world of commerce, no one expects chivalry and it’s pretty obvious that both sides aren’t willing to favor the other. But with a format poised to do more than merely provide product, such preservationist ideals would go a long way toward pushing something that few outside the hi-def faithful might feel is mandated.
Still, what remains is truly wonderful. Dahl’s fable centers on a small orphaned boy named James (Paul Terry) who is forced to live with his vile aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). Abused and dominated by the doddering old croons, he seeks solace in his dreams of traveling to New York. When a mysterious old man offers him a bag of magic “crocodile tongues”, he believes his prayers have been answered. Sadly, he spills the items near and old peach tree, causing the plant and its plentiful inhabitants to mutate and change. One particularly large piece of fruit holds future companions Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Earthworm (David Thewlis), Grasshopper (Simon Callow), and Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss). Soon, James is using the peach and his newfound friends to escape his horrid relatives. The route to freedom, however, if fraught with fairytale peril and a personal demon that our hero must conquer if he ever hopes to be happy.
Using the stop motion animation techniques that have made him an artform ace and staying relatively true to Dahl’s daft vision, Selick’s take on James and the Giant Peach is terrific. It sparkles with imagination and resonates with the kind of quirky design dynamics that make his work stand apart from others. Selick sneaks in a bit of the dark side whenever he takes on a title (something readily apparent in his recent masterpiece - a reworking of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline) and the high adventure facets here - the battle with a mechanical shark, an attack by skeleton pirates - fit perfectly into that slightly skewed perspective. Working with Disney, he definitely has to tone down the menace (the aunts could unquestionably be more horrific and demonic), but Selick doesn’t slip easily into sentimentality. He makes his characters earn their emotions and, when combined with the complicated process used to realize the images, he turns something simple into an experience quite profound.
The tactile quality of such an approach also gives James some necessary heft. Just as the limits of physical effects are as much a benefit as a liability in horror, using stop motion allows for an iconic, idiosyncratic look and approach. The lithe spindles of Miss Spider’s legs, the gooey richness of the peach’s succulent inside are brought to meticulous life in a way pen and ink or - ‘groan’ - CG could never match. It’s a sense of heighten reality, perfect for a movie made out of an already outsized story and set-up. In fact, Selick shows that all stories like this should be realized in such arcane, artificial ways. It captures the fanciful spirit of the author while allowing the viewer to experience such whimsy outside the confines of their own inner “cinema”. Call it imagination visualized or the inner world illustrated - few do it as well, and as seemingly effortlessly, as Selick.
Sadly, Disney drops the ball on this Blu-ray release (and not just for never once mentioning Partridge’s participation in the pre-production). Frankly, all previous versions of the title have lacked context and serious supplementation. This time around, there’s a new “game” for the kiddies, as well as a Making-of featurette ported over from a previous edition. Want to see Randy Newman sing one of his innocuous songs from the score. The “Good News” video fills that unnecessary void. The most significant missing bonus feature is a commentary track. Selick sat down for both A Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, but for some reason, this missing link movie in his career doesn’t warrant its own alternate narrative? Of course, the image and sound quality is superb, bringing to life detail that the painstaking stop motion process thrives on. Still, without his side of the story, this release feels inadequate and incomplete.
Perhaps it’s impossible to make everyone happy when a film has a history like James and the Giant Peach. Andy Partridge is not fool enough to give up his music merely to make a few movie obsessives happy, and Disney understands that most of their releases are nothing more than high tech babysitters for busy Moms and Dads. Artistic triumph or not, heralded masterwork or box office disappointment, the world of “what if” demands at least some small mention of what might have been. In today’s web/tech savvy world, someone is bound to do what the House of Mouse thought was unnecessary. Until then, we have this wonderful film - and the underwhelming packaging that purports to support its genius, but only makes us wonder.