Monday, April 22, 2013

Dahl Week Day 3: That's The Life For Me

When it comes to Roald Dahl tales, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory probably comes out on top on many people's lists. But if you ask me, I think James and the Giant Peach comes pretty darn close to retrieving the crown. This obscure story came out a mere 3 years before Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket saw the light of day and it even has a few references to the soon to be tale, if you read it closely.   James and the Giant Peach is the real cult hit of Dahl's tales and probably wasn't even well known until the Disney film came out in 1996 (ironically, the same year another Dahl tale, Matilda hit the silver screen), directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. But the book is still a marvel in it's own right and worthy of an entire blog post devoted to it. Like the world of Willy Wonka, I grew up with this little charm and I think it's unique way of storytelling and whimsical embodiment makes it stand out from all the other Dahl tales. It's got humor, deranged fantasy and oddball characters, which Roald Dahl was a pro at conceiving. Whether you read the book or watch Selick's movie, you're in for a delightful treat filled with twists and tumbles to last you, well, however long it takes you to read the book or watch the entire movie of course.


Unlike Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this was one of the few Dahl books I had as a kid. I'm not quite sure, but I think my brother got the book after seeing the movie when it was released on VHS. After I saw the movie (as a kid, I never knew that some of my favorite movies were based off books), I was anxious to get my hands on the book, but my brother would never let me have it. He always had it buried in a book pile on his bedroom floor and like a lot of siblings, we'd fight and hit each other until one of us won. As I grew into my preteen years, I finally gave the book a read and became infatuated with the bug filled world Dahl brought into our world, reading the book several times ever since. I think what makes the story stick out like a green banana in a pile of yellow ones is that it doesn't resort to common fairy tale redundancy, it actually does it's own thing. For example, when the story begins, James' parents are killed by a rhinoceros and he is sent to live with his cruel aunts, Spiker and Sponge. You think it would take the entire book for James to be freed from his aunt's bondage (although the movie alters this a bit), but he is actually freed very early on in the tale. As James gets inside the peach with the other bugs, it rolls down the hill and crushes Spiker and Sponge into pulp. After that, James and his new friends get into an adventure of madness which takes them out to sea, up to the sky and even to New York City. It's a story that borrows elements from many other stories, but comes out as something entirely refreshing and new in the process. It can be a pirate story, a story about flying and most importantly, a story about friendships and relationships, which I think is a vital component to a good tale with characters we can relate to and admire. James and the Giant Peach is one of the very few books from my childhood that I still have in my possession. It has a neat cover.

What I also love about James and the Giant Peach is that it shows the capabilities of Roald Dahl's deranged imagination. One minute, there's flesh craving rhinoceroses that consume human beings for lunch. Another minute, there's an old wizard who offers James neon green crocodile tongues. Another minute, there's weird "Cloud Men" who can control the weather. Another minute, James is in New York, believed to be a martian by the city's inhabitants. It's all odd stuff that you wouldn't think would add up, but it does and it comes together the best that it can. The more I observe the story, the more I feel that I'm in the story, and traveling in the peach with James and all his buggy friends. Speaking of which, they are probably myfavorite aspect of the story. There's a dignified green grasshopper, a light hearted lady bug, a sly yet friendly spider, a silent glow worm, and a slick, hip centipede with an attitude. I think I like these characters best because of the many distinct personalities they bring forward and that they all have their trademarks that make them unique. I also like the designs of the characters, both in the movie and in the various illustrations coinciding with each version of the book. All of Roald Dahl's stories have been rereleased throughout the years with many talented artists penning the illustrations, everyone from Quentin Blake to Lane Smith to Nancy Ekholm Burkert. But I really like Lane Smith's illustrations in the version I have, for the characters look very reminiscent to their movie counterparts, but still have original qualities to them. Lane Smith is also well known for illustrating books like Dr. Seuss' Hooray For Diffendoofer Day (along with Jack Prelutsky) and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

But there is no doubt that a majority of you are here to hear my thoughts and opinions on the 1996 motion picture. It is quite clear that many of us were introduced to Dahl's story through this good hearted family film with music from Randy Newman and brilliant stop motion from the stop motion animators that brought The Nightmare Before Christmas to life. In fact, the Jack Skellington puppet was used as a skeleton pirate in this film, which is a nice little Easter egg to keep your eyes out for. Anyway, the film adaptation of James and the Giant Peach is one of my favorite Disney films and one of my favorite films in general. Yeh, I know I say that a lot about the films I talk about, but it really is the truth. I seen this film as a small todd and it loomed in my mind ever since, forcing me to give it tremendous re-watches throughout the years to the point where my VHS tape developed the great white line illness. It was the complete opposite for The Nightmare Before Christmas. When I first saw that film, I was terrified out of my wits and never wanted to watch it again. The way the characters moved, the way they looked, the monsters portrayed in the film (particularly the one hiding under your bed), they made me cry my little eyes out, until I was much, much, much, much older and realized how brilliant the film really was.

James and the giant peach.jpg

Even though this film had the same director, same producer and same animators and style, I didn't have a problem with it.Probably because this film is the complete opposite of Nightmare with all it's deranged, macabre terrors and misfits. This is a bright, nice film to look at, and unlike Nightmare, it's vibrant and sunny with vivid colors and visuals to make your eyes pop out of their sockets. There is of course some shades of grey here and there, but it is mostly in the live action segments in the beginning. Other than that, it's like a kindergarten coloring book full of twisted, yet dazzling surroundings very reminiscent of Dr. Seuss or even Winsor Mccay, the creator of Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. I also can't help but feel that this film (and the book even) was inspired by Little Nemo and his Adventures in Slumberland. You've got the day dreaming little boy in the form of James, who is very much like Nemo in Mccay's original comics. You've got the cigar smoking wise guy in the form of the Centipede (portrayed in the film by Richard Dreyfuss), who is much like the troublesome Flip, voiced by Mickey Rooney in the animated film from the late 80s.You've got the big scary rhinoceros, who is very much like the Nightmare King and you've got the wise, tall guy in the form of the Old Green Grasshopper, who is very much like Professor Genius in Slumberland. Instead of traveling by bed or dirigible, the group travels by peach, weather it soars like a sailboat or flies in the sky via hundreds of seagulls. It's a very interesting comparison, and I can't help but wonder if Henry Selick and Tim Burton drew some inspiration from Mccay and his adventures in a child's imagination. Even some of the designs are similar to Mccay's drawings of his signature characters.

As I said before, this film is bright and rich with color and the complete opposite of Nightmare Before Christmas, which featured dark, shadowy scenery straight out of the heart of nightmares. But that's not to say that James and the Giant Peach doesn't have it's nightmarish qualities as well. Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margoyles give a menacing performance as the wicked Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge and suffer a differ fate than they do in the book. The rhinoceros who devoured James' parents is a terrifying sight and looks like something straight out of the depths of the underworld. The sharks James and company encounter out at sea look like something that crawled out of Nightmare, but to add a bit of edge to the film, they were kept in to terrify all the viewers. They are also not your average sharks. These bad boys look like something straight out of Marc Forster's Finding Neverland.

Nevertheless, this is a feel good film, much like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This film has some good actors taking on Dahl's brainchildren. Aside from Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margoyles, we have some very fine professionals voicing the insects and arachnids such as Susan Sarandon, David Thewlis, Richard Dreyfuss, and Amadeus alum Simon Callow. We also have the late great Pete Postlethwaite as the old magic man who gives James the crocodile tongues. In the role of James is Paul Terry, who does a pretty good job of capturing James' naiveté and young optimism straight from Dahl's book. I don't think he's acting anymore, but I do know he was part of a British band called Glass Apple. 

Speaking of music, Randy Newman is spectacular as always singing the songs for this film. This is a year after he did the music for Toy Story, and although he will forever be known for his work in that film, his originality for the songs in James really shines through and we get some quirky, off the wall and at times, tear jerking song numbers. My personal favorite of the bunch is That's The Life For Me, for it was always the song that stuck out to me the most when I watched this film as a kid. All the songs are great in their own right, including the song where the characters sing about eating the peach. I for one would like to reach my hand in the screen and take a huge bite out of that fruit. It looks so juicy and fresh, just imagine if giant peaches grew in the real world. Oh well, I guess I'll settle for square

Anyway, we are almost done with Dahl Week. Tune in next time and we'll have a look at another Dahl tale that was adapted into a film the very same year James and the Giant Peach hit theaters. It's a more grounded in reality story,but it's still fantastic whatever way you look at it. 

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