Sunday, September 30, 2012

Peachy Keen?: "James and the Giant Peach" (1996)

When I was a kid, those big loud musicals of the late '60's and early '70's totally freaked me out. Bloated monstrosities like "Doctor Dolittle," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and even the much later "Annie" were torture for many kids to sit through, while smiling parents thought they had finally found something to keep their offspring entertained. Well, add this film to the list.

After his parents were taken by a giant snorting rhinoceros, young James (Paul Terry) must go live with his evil Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes). He is made to do all the work around the house, and the aunts treat him horribly. James meets an old man (Pete Postlethwaite), who gives him a magic bag filled with crocodile tongues. James wants desperately to leave this house of hell in England, and go to the Empire State Building in New York City. This was a dream of his parents' before they died, and James has been keeping hope alive since.

James accidentally spills the bag, and the magic tongues generate a giant peach that grows to the size of a house. James crawls inside it, and discovers giant bugs that have also changed thanks to the magic. The group roll the peach into the ocean, and set sail for New York, and immediately run into other fantastic whimsical obstacles. The two aunts quickly pursue.

The film does start out live action, then switches to the stop motion animation that made "The Nightmare Before Christmas" famous. In the animation scenes, Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Glowworm (Miriam Margolyes, again), Spider (Susan Sarandon), and Earthworm (David Thewlis) all become characters who contribute to the voyage. They also grate on the nerves as much as Randy Newman's hopelessly bland songs.

The main voyage, with its undersea pirate ghosts and mechanical shark, just is not all that interesting. I was reminded of "The Pagemaster" while watching this. There is no central villain, so the threats to the peach's voyage are predictably dealt with. Of course, this being a musical, the entire film comes to a complete stop so the cast can warble a tune and bore the audience. The terrifying corpse makeup sported by Lumley and Margolyes, and their mistreatment of James, just added to my distaste. The rhino effects are impressive, and Terry turns in a good performance.

While the technology involved in creating this film is landmark and all that, Roald Dahl's original story is a letdown. Do not be bowled over by the bells and whistles, "James and the Giant Peach" is strange and cold. Go to bed, kids. (* *) out of five stars.