Monday, March 11, 2024

Walt Disney, part XLIX: The pits


Directed by Henry Selick
Written by Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, and Steve Bloom (based on the novel by Roald Dahl)

Spoilers: moderate

I don't like James and the Giant Peach, which means it must've made some honest efforts to retake the ground it had already lost, since for a long time I sat there wondering exactly how much I was going to hate James and the Giant Peach, and, indeed, if I'd somehow made a mistake as to what James and the Giant Peach actually was.  That time can be measured very precisely: it's the entire first act, which can itself be measured very precisely, at 19 minutes and 30 seconds, which is how long it is before this stop-motion animated filmthe second feature film from stop-motion animator, Henry Selick, following the qualified success of his first stop-motion animated feature film, The Nightmare Before Christmasstarts using stop-motion animation to tell its story.  I also hate, a little, its finale, which sends us right back to the live-action we started out with, but it's only ten minutes, and I'd at least gotten a mild half-dose of whimsy by then, plus I knew it was going to be over soon, hence it doesn't reflect quite as poorly on the film as the decision to go on for literally more than the first quarter of its runtimesubstantially more than its first quarter, because when a movie clocks in at 79 minutes, we can reasonably begin accounting for the five or six minutes of closing creditsbefore giving us anything even resembling what we came to see, outside of a special effect here or there.

This was, as is extremely obvious, a compromise, though this is surprising in a couple of waysfirstly, that a movie that is, being charitable, two-thirds stop-motion animation still cost, at $38 million in 1996, $14 million more than the movie that was all stop-motion animation, and groundbreaking stop-motion animation, requiring the development of basically a whole stop-motion animation studio, that had been released only three years earlier.  ($38 million places it in roughly the same budgetary category as The Lion King, and it did not, perhaps needless to say, vigintuple that budget.  Hell, it didn't quite unituple its budget.)  The Roald Dahl novel upon which the film is based had come to Selick's attention many years before, in the early 1980s when he was still at Disney, by way of Joe Ranft, who made repeated, unsuccessful efforts to pitch it as a possible feature, with most everyone else finding it narratively fuzzy and not really ideal for an animated adaptation in the Disney styleso presumably even fuzzier than The Black Cauldron, and I daresay it might well beplus it was Roald Dahl, so it has a bit of a nasty streak that they'd have to figure out what to do with, and why should they bother, just to get to a movie about a giant flying peach?  Good question.  Nevertheless, it stuck with Selick as his career brought him back to Disney, as well as to others who'd been exposed to it by Ranft, including, I assume, Tim Burton (a producer here but not, as on Nightmare, a co-creator).  It's not entirely clear to me if Disney bought the rights to the novel from Dahl's daughter in 1992 at Selick's insistence, or if they offered it to him, without Nightmare even out yet, under the assumption that his sensibilities and prior interest made him right for the job; but in either case, he set to it once Nightmare's production had concluded, not, in fact, planning to do it as a purely stop-animated film.  What Selick originally wanted was a full-on live-action/stop-motion animation hybrid, more along the lines of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cool World, and when this proved completely infeasible (though I understand he eventually managed such a thing, on Monkeybone), he said, "Fine, then, fuck it and fuck you.  I'll just do this cartoon with a live-action prologue going on twenty minutes, and see how you like that."

The latter part of that production history is slightly speculative (Selick states he did so for budgetary reasons), but it feels like, as the kids say, an emotionally true production history.  So: in 1948, James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) is living an idyllic life with his mom and dad in England, but one day a rhinoceros comes and devours themso, we've arrived at that mean streak already, though it appears to make marginally more sense in the novelrendering the lad an orphan, and sending him into the talons of his (I think maternal) aunts, Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margoyles).  They mistreat him, as is the prerogative of evil non-parental relatives in children's fiction, but one day James is visited by a magical man (Pete Postlethwaite) who gives him a box of magical items, grossed up by Selick, or by one of his numerous writersDahl is mean, but Selick is ickyfrom Dahl's innocuous crystals to a bag of things they call boiled crocodile tongues, but which appear to be some manner of green-glowing pasta (so assuming they were supposed to be gross, they badly disappoint) that leap about if you don't keep a lid on them.  Despite being warned to this effect, James accidently dumps the things out almost immediately, seemingly depriving him of the wish they could have granted, but there is some magic left, and the dead tree in his aunts' yard suddenly blossoms and fruits with a single peach, that gets bigger before their very eyes.

We are still in live action and will continue to be so for several more minutesthe aunts turn it into a tacky tourist attraction, nominally because this happens in the novel, but I believe to pad out just a little more runtime using the source material that they're going to more-or-less abandon once we get to the actual plotand it is all incredibly brutal stuff.  It practically hurts to watch, my first and I suppose definitive thought being "what if The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar looked ghastly and awful?", with a purposeful children's stageplay aesthetic in the exterior sets (it has to be relaxed slightly in the interiors, which are just lightly expressionistic) that Selick has no idea what to do with except seemingly misframe everything in this film's unusual 1.66:1 aspect ratio while flogging the otherwise-talented Hiro Narita, a cinematographer unfortunately on the long downward slope from the top-of-the-B-list phase of his career, into some of the ugliest sludge imaginable, shot through a sock and unmotivatedly-lit with what's supposed to be gold sunlight or pale moonlight and all of it barely perceptible through a thick layer of grimy grain.  It would likely be tedious in any treatment, just nearly twenty minutes of shrillly-stereotyped cruelty effected by Lumley and Margoyles, unimaginatively earning their paychecks mostly by virtue of suffering through being put into their hag makeup, whereas Terry, a fundamentally inadequate child actor even by the standards of the class, is basically just a wheezy little English boy voice, every last inflection and emotion of which you could undoubtedly do a solid impression of, even if you'd never seen this movie.

At last, however, James hears voices inside the giant peach one night, and investigating, becomes a stop-motion animated boy, which is bizarrely noted by James as a diegetic transformation, and this somehow makes it all worse, because he hasn't been shrunk, the bugs who are going to be his new friends have been, like the peach, enlarged, and it calls attention to the money-and-time-saving utter cheat of it, just making you mad at the movie all over again even once it's finally started.  Those voices, anyway, belong to that collection of aforementioned invertebrates: the rough-and-tumble Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), the fussy, pedantic Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the sweet, matronly Ladybug (Jane Leeves), the anxious Earthworm (David Thewliss), and the French Spider (Susan Sarandon), who is, in fairness, probably less an ethnic stereotype (no moreso, anyhow, than the rest are of various English types) than she is kind and motherly toward James, for he once saved her from the archnicidal terror of his aunts.  (There is also a Glowworm (Margoyles again), though her contribution to the story is "being a lamp.")  The aunts come to see what the commotion is, and the peach is detached from its tree, and it does not roll over them and kill them, per Dahl, but it does roll into the Atlantic Ocean; once James figures out how to use his new friends' skills to enslave a bunch of seagulls, it becomes airborne, and they have an adventure on the way to their shared destination, the place James's parents were going to take him before their misfortune with that rhinoceros, New York City.

This part is fine, and though that's a lot of narrative and aesthetic sewage to wade through to only ever get to "fine," James and the Giant Peach immediately gets better once it's a stop-motion cartoon, and that stop-motion cartoon itself gets noticeably better as it goes along, too.  There is probably a hard ceiling to how good it could get: it's a bunch of one-note characters pitched at somebody's idea of what children enjoy (and one of the things that makes me reconsider if I hate the film is the hubris of its more self-congratulatory gestures; its epilogue involves James telling his story to generations of children who adore it), and they're not usually funny or entertaining.  The one designated the funniest, or at least you can tell everyone must've felt he should be even if they don't seem much more convinced than I was, Centipede, is mostly just annoying, Dreyfuss just doing this broad-as-a-barn, incredibly-unspecific shtick on behalf of an incompetent whiner who lies a lot.  At best, he's something for the slightly-better-defined personalities to react to, and Callow's Grasshopper dutifully does so, getting a downright unfair fraction of the seven or eight lines in the movie that are actually funny, though these also become more frequent in the third quarter of the movie, where the vignettish adventure stuff and the dialogue gets better, particularly whenever Grasshopper finds himself correcting his fellows' doomsaying by noting some minor error they'd made, though always winding up agreeing with their initial conclusion that, yes, they definitely are all doomed.  I will say, however, that it's deflating that both of Disney's animated films of the summer of 1996 have armpit fart jokes, even if this one's is, I guess, better.  (Centipede has numerous armpits so at least there's some novelty here.)

There are likewise some songs, courtesy Randy Newman (not exactly forced upon Selick, but not his first choice), which aren't abysmally bad (except for "My Name Is James" because Paul Terry was a worse singer than actorI get no joy from this, mind you), but you can see how you've never heard anybody humming one; the best is an ensemble number called "Family," in case the themes were too complex for you, but it's sweet enough.  Newman's work on the score is a lot better, channeling some Horner and maybe a little Goldsmith here and there, and I think it's the single most successful thing in the movie, occasionally imparting a real sense of kid's adventure wonder to a film that otherwise, even at its best, feels like path-of-least-resistance kid's junk.

Animation-wise, we're on firmer footing, at least.  The flying giant peacha big orange globe pulled by seagulls, and afforded a spiral deck made out of the fenceposts it absorbed on its way to the seais a singular image, if nothing else, and it allows Selick to play with yucky, probably rotting piles of fruit.  The character design is fun, leaning into their types, though this does cut both ways, so they're always on the "cute" side of "cute-creepy," and mostly pretty arbitrary about the choices that went into them.  On this latter count, Grasshopper wins again, with his thin, streamlined design suited to being the most elegant of the bugs; whereas Ladybug even actually "fits" her insect species in principle.  Even so, Spider is pretty easily the best, the one that's most fun to watch gracefully move (and the one who most indicates the Burtonesque influence Selick had picked up on Nightmare), as well as the one who seems most indebted to anything about the period this film takes place in (the movie feels a whole lot more "30s" than "40s," and she bears the most Art Deco mentality, very much a vamp from a pre-Code movie poster); and while I have less than zero use for a spider wearing a Goddamn beret, I genuinely like the idea with her eyes, doubled inside each eyehole.  If they'd remembered spiders usually still have eight eyes, and doubled the eyeholes accordingly, the movie might've even gotten up to "only a little bad."  As for James himself, he's an unsympathetic little piece of protagonistic simplicity with a stupid-looking face and black doll's eyes, kind of a complete failure even with a pretty low bar.

Despite that, this part is harmless and fluffysometimes literally, there's a really swell "sunset clouds" sequence that I assume, as Nightmare before it, uses cotton ballsand the adventure modules we get, though thanks to this movie taking an eternity to begin, we don't get very many (mainly just the one where they fight the corpses of underwater pirates to secure a compass, including a cameoing Jack Skellington as well as a cameoing dead Donald Duck), are enjoyable little exercises in the stop-motion art.  But it's hard not to feel like it's wasting your time, and treading a lot of water.  This is certainly true in "am I supposed to have any affective reaction to this" terms (the idea that you could play with, I think, is that this is sort of James's psychotic breakdown-induced fantasy where his only friends are the bugs he shares his attic room with).  But it's also true when you think about it as a successor to Nightmare Before Christmas, and therefore a standard-bearer for feature stop-motion animation from the filmmaker who, in the 1990s, was one of its few if not its only serious practitioners.  Perhaps there's stunning technical advances here only a real head would getI suppose I could work myself up to be impressed by the integration of the water into Selick's aesthetic, which I think is Sony Picture Imageworks' big contribution, and which has a nice tangible feel to it*but this sensation of watching nothing special is interrupted pretty rarely.  And even then, it's mostly when you can feel Selick shaking off the Burtonisms of his previous film and hearkening back to his roots as an experimental animator, like during a splendidly-strange cut-out nightmare sequence that finds James as a caterpillarwhich is to say, a caterpillar cut-out with Terry's face on it (best part of his performance)chased by his evil aunts.  There's also something about an earthworm wearing sunglasses that says "that's a Selick idea" to me.

Then it ends, necessarily returning to live-action, and the less said about this the better, probablyokay, I do like the implication that Striker and Sponge drove their wrecked car across the bottom of the Atlantic to chase their nephew and their giant peach, that's funny, and now that they're also wet the aunts really finally pop as disgusting grotesquesbut the movie would still prefer it take five times as long as it probably needs to, as it barely has enough ideas for this "climax" to even exist.  As far as it fits into "Disney animation" history, it's like something they'd have made in the 60s or 70s, the most aimless era of the company.  The film, uniquely enough in Selick's filmography, found him working outside of any partnership with a strong visionary, and it thus prompts again the question that Nightmare Before Christmas raised, and which has dogged Selick throughout his career, of whether his personality as a filmmaker simply hasn't had that many chances to express itself, or whether he actually doesn't have a personality as a filmmaker to express, only a style and skillset that's served well as an executor for other artists.  It's a movie that I'm sure you needn't look hard to find someone calling it charming, but even to the extent it ever iswhich isn't that muchit feels like it amounts to less than even a meandering children's story should, on top of feeling a little like it's tricked you into watching it at all.

Score: 4/10

*I'll sure be embarrassed if it's not CGI, anyway, but unlike Nightmare, there's just not a lot of available material about how this movie got made.  It also might be Disney's CGI water program, which looked like shit in their hand-drawn animated films, but precisely because it feels like a tangible sheet being wobbled up and down, it'd be an aesthetic that works a lot better against stop-motion.

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