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|Kevin Krock, editor|
As a follow-up to their weird and wildly successful The Nightmare Before Christmas, the fertile and somewhat twisted minds of producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick rejoined to create the incredible world of James and the Giant Peach.
The story, based on a popular children’s novel of the same name by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl, follows a young orphan named James as he and a group of giant insects venture from Europe to New York inside a giant peach. This somewhat dark and odd story is a perfect fit for the imaginations and superb stop- motion animation of Burton and Selick. Throw in some great music by Randy Newman (Toy Story, Toy Story 2), and you have the makings of a film fit for the family. Just be aware that the movie is rated PG for some intense and potentially frightening scenes that may upset young children.
James is introduced as a wonderfully happy boy with loving parents and a good life. Unfortunately, before he and his parents can start their new life in New York, his parents are killed by a rhinoceros, and James must remain in England and live with his two evil aunts, Spiker and Sponge.
As his dismal reality begins to crush his dreams of starting anew in New York, James meets a mysterious vagabond who gives him a bag of magic crocodile tongues. Shortly after James spills them in the front yard of his aunts’ house, a peach sprouts on one of the barren trees, growing as big as the house and becoming a tourist attraction.
James discovers a hole in the peach and decides to climb inside. There, he finds himself transformed and transported into a magic crocodile tongue-induced world, where he gets acquainted with the huge, talking insects that inhabit the inside of the peach.
The real adventure starts when the peach breaks off from the tree and rolls into the ocean, much to the chagrin of Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, who chase after it. Once free, the insects decide to help James get to New York, but quickly realize the various challenges to overcome, including a killer mechanical shark and a haunted shipwreck. As they toil together to get across the ocean, they grow together and the insects become James’ odd adoptive family. Fortunately, the movie ends on a happy note, thus underscoring the theme that hard work, persistence, and teamwork can make your dreams come true.
Based on the “Special Edition” banner on the disc’s cover, you would expect considerably more bonus material than what appears on this disc, especially when you compare it to the fairly loaded special edition of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was re- released as a special edition at the same time.
This disc includes a production featurette that appears to have been created for promotional use, but its short run time of only four and a half minutes is insufficient to cover the film’s production in any appreciable depth. It is almost like a documentary sampler or teaser, touching on many aspects of the film- making process, but never a good, long look at its intricate details.
Besides that, there are only a couple of movie trailers, a music video, and a 72-picture, still-frame gallery. This disc simply lacks many fundamental features that I expect from a “Special Edition.” Granted, this was one of the first DVD releases when Disney was trying to figure out what to do with this format, but when I see special or collector’s edition discs, I expect a running commentary (or more), deleted scenes, storyboards, outtakes, and so forth. Thankfully, Disney DVDs have come a long way since then, and I hope that there might be a chance to see a more comprehensive special edition of James and the Giant Peach in the future.
The Video, Audio and Interface
In addition to its disappointing lack of goodies, the lack of an anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film also adds to the puzzling “Special Edition” moniker. The letterbox version looks fine on standard TV sets, but this wonderfully detailed film would probably not look as good on many other systems. The transfer’s color balance is right on target, however; during colorful scenes, the colors are bright and saturated, while during the dark scenes, the shadows, muted colors, and highlights are clearly distinguishable. The visual detail remains intact, and there are no major visual flaws with the transferred print or digitization process.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack sounded quite nice on everything from my computer to my Dolby Pro Logic receiver, and I am sure it sounds even better on a full Dolby Digital system. The dialog is clear, and the music is wonderfully spacious. There are also enough surround and panning effects to keep the audio interesting. Also included on the disc is an English DTS soundtrack, a nice feature if you have a DTS decoder. There are even Spanish and French soundtracks to cover a pretty good chunk of the audiences in North America.
A lackluster user interface serves as yet another downfall of the disc. The menus are legible and very simply organized, but they lack animation and audio accents completely. While this is typical of Disney’s early DVD releases from 1999 to early-2000, it comes as a bit of a disappointment to those that have grown accustomed to current DVD interface design.
The Final Evaluation
If you've not seen the movie, it is definitely worth a rental for family movie night — just remember its PG rating for some potentially scary scenes. But for a special edition, this DVD falls short of my expectations: it lacks a commentary track, an anamorphic video transfer, substantive documentary goodies, and an interesting / special user interface. Although it does have a nice selection of audio tracks, that ultimately does not make up for the other shortcomings in this package.
Unfortunately, this is not a shining example of a special edition DVD, and is probably not worth upgrading from your current VHS copy. In light of its recent special / collector’s edition DVD successes, I hope Disney decides to revisit this and other early DVD titles to give them the dose of pixie dust they deserve.
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