There is a giant mechanical shark in James and the Giant Peach that attacks the intrepid crew of the, well, the peach. The other dangers they face can seemingly serve some purpose, diving down below icy waters to retrieve a compass begins a fight with a group of skeletons, but the shark, that one is a mystery.
We see that its stop-motion fueled mouth spits out the fish heads James (Paul Terry) is forced to eat back in the real world, but it assaults the peach with no real reasoning for the attack. Who controls it? Why is it in the water? Why is it hungry enough to eat a peach or some talking insects? It is utterly bizarre and quite pointless, yet James and the Giant Peach is such a quirky, surreal effort, anything really goes.
Based on the book by Roald Dahl, which certainly explains many of eccentricities, director Henry Selick book-ends the film with live action, yet never grounding it in any realm of reality. The film opens with James on the beach, his perfect family dreaming of moving to New York, and then switching to the darkness of his abusive aunt’s home. It’s all done with a child like sense of wonder and exaggeration, the routinely cruel actions of his new guardians so improbable yet undoubtedly still awful enough that a child must fantasize to stay happy.
Selick switches the film to stop-motion, three-years post Nightmare Before Christmas, and the results are genuinely satisfying. The bug creations, from a centipede to a spider, are varied beautifully, and their motions all unique. Musical numbers and not as aggressive as those from Nightmare, a little more subdued with generally fewer characters and objects to deal with, yet still a challenge for someone animating these things. The person dealing with a net full of 100 animated seagulls and multiple main characters would have been wise to find a new career path before attempting that shot.
Despite a surprising Academy Award nomination, the music here flounders slightly, certainly not something children would likely be enamored with beyond the food song, singing of toes, newts, and dragon meat at least somewhat charming. Besides, there’s too much going on visually, an exciting array of surrealism in front of the camera that the songs almost seem secondary with the rather low-key approach of Randy Newman… the exact opposite of sending a giant mechanical shark to assault a giant peach.
Things do not start well for James in this AVC encode. The opening scene, with a heavy mist and filtered lighting is awash with artifacting. Compression is highly visible throughout this sequence on the beach, and unfortunately the problems carries over into the rest of the opening live action. Faces are excessively noisy, the grain structure typically resolved poorly and the detail squashed. Grain also seems a bit heightened unnaturally here, not matching any of the later scenes.
Once into the animation, about 20-minutes, things begin to shine. The amount of detail on those models is truly spectacular, the animated James’ face at 23: 15 a great stand-out. The surface of the peach itself is remarkably resolved and defined, that slight fuzz constantly visible as the models trek over the surface. Colors comes into play, long establishing shots including the warm sky at 37:03 to the icy blues at 51:11 are bright and well saturated.
Depth is excellent, producing a fine level of dimensionality. Black levels are rich enough consistently to maintain this throughout the film, never really faltering. Grain in the animated sequences is consistently resolved and never an issue, making those early scenes stand out even more.
The finale, book-ending the film with more live action, is also improved. The officer who helps James played by Mike Starr has some excellent mid-range detail past the hour mark. The final shot of the film, a zoom on Pete Postlethwaite, is loaded with texture missing from the earlier portions. The superb set work shines in these final moments, all now visible with the resolution increase.
The amount of stereo work here is truly impressive in this DTS-HD effort. Everything has a place in this audio mix, pushed around the front channels with amazing accuracy and liveliness. The surround channels are equally aggressive, if slightly elevated for effect.
It doesn’t take long for the track to pick up, the giant peach beginning its journey aggressively at 25:49, thundering in the subwoofer as it bounces about. Its movement is precisely represented in all available channels. The shark assault is likewise a highlight, shooting voracious mechanical fish from its hull that snap their jaws cleanly in the surrounds as they approach. It eventually explodes with a pretty hefty shot of bass, clean and smooth like it is for the entirety of the movie.
Every scene seems to offer something of note, even the strictly 2D sequence at 44:02 where voices swirl around the soundfield. For true reference material, the rhino assault at the hour mark features loud, crisp bolts of lightning dancing around the speakers while the subwoofer gains heavy work from its roar and thunder.
Extras are sadly meager, including a promo featurette from 1996, music video, stills, and boring Blu-ray game. Trailers and BD-Live capabilities remain.