Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Took a lil' NAP where the roots all TWIST!" - Disney Loose End #44: "James and the Giant Peach"

So here's our first loose end from the Disney Animated Canon, just recently available on Netflix. Actually, I'll consider it a good thing that I had to skip this one during the time I was originally watching/reviewing the Canon all those years ago, since "James and the Giant Peach" is a very interesting, all but forgotten film that deserves a bit of elbow room, rather than a quick paragraph-long review. The same could be said of the other three films I'll be reviewing over the next two weeks.

Some years ago, there was considerable debate as to which animated features made by Walt Disney Pictures should be considered "true" Disney films and which ones shouldn't. This was largely spurred by the glut of direct-to-video/DVD Disney sequels,
as seen here, but the question is one that seems to have haunted Disney as long as I can remember. There is an Official Official List of films in the Disney Animated Canon, and even so, part of me wonders how much was added and subtracted just so Disney could say they've hit fifty films in all just last winter.

You see, back when I was a kid, if a Disney film contained animation, it was considered an "Animated Disney Animated Classic Animated Entertainment Event What is Animated." Simple enough. So clearly "Fantasia" and "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" were part of what would in the future be called the Canon, but so were things like "Victory Through Air Power" and "Song of the South" and even "TRON" (speaking of, here are more thoughts on this issue). If you were a movie and you gave Disney a reason to brag about it's animation legacy, you were in, which made a lot of sense back when Disney was hurting for things to brag about with regards to animated films. (To get a sense of what Disney was like in the late 70's through the mid 80's, picture a peacock who is desperately trying to replace his shiny display feathers, even as they are moulting.) As you can see here, when you count every notable Disney feature-length film with animation in it as part of the Canon, we left #50 in the dust years ago (then again, given the movie that gets to be number fifty by my reckoning is the much-derided "Dinosaur"...)

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" in particular has always had a strange and uncomfortable position within the Disney Animated Canon and, indeed, within Disney films period. When the film was initially released, Disney had little idea what to do with it, how to advertise it, and, most importantly (and tellingly) how to make it into a toy or a theme park ride or a Happy Burger King Kid's Club Meal. It took years and years for Disney to figure out how to appease fans of "Nightmare", and while one could argue that they are going way too far in the opposite direction, it's nice to see them doing anything at all with it. By far, the greatest bone thrown to "Nightmare Before Christmas" and it's fans is the appearance of Jack Skellington and company in "Kingdom Hearts" back before
that series went off the rails in a way that is, come to mention it, truly impressive. For this reason, I'd have felt remiss if I hadn't included it in the Canon.

And if "Nightmare" counts then, by God! so does it's immediate successor. Which brings us, finally to today's entry in my journey through the Disney animated films I'd missed out on earlier for various reasons and just recently procured copies of (and never you mind how, though mad props to those of you who have supported this project). Ah, "James and the Giant Peach", what a wonderful little oddball in the history of animated films you are. It is very sad to reflect that, while Disney has taken so very long to acknowledge "Nightmare Before Christmas", "James" might as well be completely invisible.

Henry Selick, the director of both "Nightmare" and "James", and also of "Coraline" and the impressively bizarre "Monkeybone", is, God bless him and his beautifully crazy mind, the kind of director who makes whatever Bizzaries and Fantasies he would like to watch and screw you all if you don't like it. Which is why his adaptation of a Roald Dahl storybook lies among the best Dahl-inspired films. And this is because Roald Dahl, may he and his beautifully crazy mind rest in peace, always struck me as the kind of children's book author who wrote what he wanted and never mind if there are any concerned parents who don't like it. (Maurice Sendak is a close soul-brother.) To that end, his characters tend to face the most unthinkable trauma before some kind of magical thing or other whisks them away to their Happily Ever After. And I do mean "unthinkable". Very early on in "James and the Giant Peach", we are told by the sweetly grandfatherly voice of Pete Postlethwaite (and how I miss him!) how our young hero watched on helplessly as his kindly mother and father were eaten by an angry rhinoceros.

Methinks if almost any other children's book author at all had written something like that, it would warrant a passionate Psy-yi-yi?! In a Roald Dahl book, getting maimed by an utterly random animal is Monday. Hanging with large invertebrates (here designed by the wonderful Lane Smith) is Tuesday.

The action inside and around the titular giant peach is why we're here and Selick's work in "James" is astonishing and wonderful. All the creatures have great physicality and marvelous little character moments. The same astounding attention to detail present in "Nightmare Before Christmas" is here too. The live-action bookends are a touch awkward... but I *did* just watch "Rock-A-Doodle", so I'm willing to let them slide.

So here we have a lost little gem that, I think, deserves a lot more attention. Next up, speaking of lost movies, we dig a little deeper into the Disney vault. For more posts in this ongoing series, go here, or click the Chronological Disney Animated Canon tag below.

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Sketch of the Day!

8.9.11 - Maine Wildlife Park Studies

2 comments:

Albertonykus said...

Even being part of a Roald Dahl book, the "eaten by a rhino" bit always, always bothered me. I remember the first time I read the book, I took a pen, crossed out "eaten by", and replaced it with "attacked"!

I've only seen this film once (though it's a wonder I've seen such a seemingly obscure film at all) several years ago, and at the time I... wasn't very fond of it. The completely random stuff (eg: mechanical shark, pirates, cloud rhino!?!?) and deviation from the original bugged me to no end. It's not as though the original story doesn't have fantastical magic stuff going on in it, but at least there's a in-universe logic for them.

Albertonykus said...

Okay, I had forgotten about the cloud people in the book when I wrote that comment. Still, they have some connection to the real world (they create weather), instead of being something that's just there because it is and to look cool.