Friday, 16 October 2015

James and the Giant Peach Nightmare

In keeping up what seems to be becoming a Halloween tradition, for this article I'm looking another seeming innocence children's movie and realising that it's actually a terrifying horror movie in disguise.

However, compared to the existential dread of life inside a Pokeball, the absolute terror of the chokey in Maltida, or the horror that is The Brave Little Toaster, I'm kinda cheating with this one. For although James and the Giant Peach is undoubtably creepy and scary in parts, that's just it. It's creepy. Not horrifying, just weird and creepy.

"I say, have a look at that weird and creepy thing, James!" - Grasshopper, probably.

Now, I did have a lot of nostalgia for this film since I've watched it since I was a young child but revisiting it as an adult you notice that a lot of things are just weird. And it's not limited to the wonderful but off-kilter character designs or intentionally odd moments, although we'll get to those in a moment.

Rather there's just something off about the film, almost conceptually, that is woven into the very fabric of the script and narrative, spilling like succulent peach juice all over the place into the aesthetic and execution of the movie.

Unsurprisingly, the film is based off the children's book by Roald Dahl and we're all too aware of Dahl's particular predilection for outright torturing children through nightmare inducing means in his charming stories for children to read charmingly.

"Soon there will be only one left."

I think the thing about the script that makes feel off is that it is so disjointed. Things just happen at the drop of record scratch out of nowhere for no reason aside from 'I guess this is happening now'. This results in abrupt and jarring shifts in tone which gives the film an odd dissonance that adds to the film's creep factor.

For example, we start the film with idyllic family bliss as James is cloud-gazing with his parents on an English beach and everything is hunky dory. And then the narrator states that "an angry rhinoceros appeared out of nowhere and gobbled up his mother and father" ...

Well, you know what else was out of nowhere? That abrupt skip track from happy family beach time to 'and then they were gobbled up... by a rhino... that was angry'. I understand that the removal of the parents in the novel is similarly abrupt but the key change in the film is kinda ridiculous in just how sudden it is.

James: Dad, I have the strangest feeling like a herbivorous animal will just appear to eat you and mum
because it has anger issues serious enough to develop a taste for man-flesh.
Father: Well James, like your mother said, try looking at it another way. We have to be removed from the plot somehow.

And this dissonance permeates throughout the whole film. Every scene seems to stumble into the next with no flow. Things happen and nothing is explained nor is the world fleshed out enough for things to just be accepted as part of the established universe of the film.

Rather things are there because they are there. How they exist or what makes them work is just asking questions the film gave no thought to because it's a children's film of course there is a giant mechanic shark thing in the ocean, why wouldn't there be?

Actually, the mechanic shark thing is interesting since it is legitimately terrifying and a great monster with its rotating teeth of terror. Bellowing smoke even though it's a submarine which submerges underwater, it seems like the perfect combination of fears of industrial machinery and, well, sharks.

It also shoots a harpoon out its mouth so it's not completely handicapped.

Back to the point about how things kinda just happen in James and the Giant Peach, the characters don't develop over the film. Rather they come as though just taken out of the freezer, no backstory or motivation, freshly microwaved and ready to be served. They have an identifiable characteristic and that's about it.

Centipede has a Brooklyn accent and is a compulsive liar because reasons. Spider is a loner even though she spends all her time with everyone else because apparently that's something the scene needed when she's tucking James into her web.

Where this really works though is with Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margoyles as James' terribly mean aunts Spiker and Sponge respectively. While they have only one note, which is be incredibly mean and angry to James at every opportunity, both actresses put their all into the part, willing to be utterly atrocious and unappealing at every turn. It's rather admirable how dedicated they are to the bit.

They're absolutely fabulous.

The writing is just all over the place, which kinda adds to the film's off-kilter appeal. On the other side, the film is wondrously creative and imaginative, not only in its character designs but also the unreal, dream-like aesthetic.

The live action sets are decidedly unreal with German Expressionism-esque architecture on what is obviously a studio set with matte drawing backgrounds. Because of their heightened nature, the live action scenes almost feel more dream-like than the stop-motion scenes. And remember those are the scenes with a mechanical shark.

And this surreal disjointed nature means the film is almost ideal for interpretation since there seems to be no reason for why anything is happening or what it is supposed to mean. That said, it's pretty obvious what the rhino is meant to symbolise, right?

"Oh no, a metaphor of the inevitable encroach of death!"

Oh, and of course the climax with the rhino just ends with no clear resolution because what else would you expect from the film by that stage? James stands up to it, shouting that it is just a lot of smoke and noise and that he isn't afraid because he is looking at it a different way, just like his mother said.

Which is quite an inspiring message really if we accept the rhino as the embodiment of death, which we totally should because what the hell is it otherwise? It came out of nowhere and took away his parents just as death can happen at anytime and take away the ones we love.

By standing up to the rhino, James is really declaring that he's not afraid of death but willing to face it head on. Which is probably why the rhino just zaps the peach then bounces. He has no further power to intimidate James.

"Arr, I might be dead and can remove my head for Shakespearean citations but my mind is blown." - Captain Jack Skellington 

Or maybe the writer just wanted to end the film and that seemed like the easiest way to bring in the rhino and then get rid of him before the happy ending. Considering how fractured and weird this film is, it wouldn't be surprising if that was the case.

James and the Giant Peach isn't a horror film masquerading as a children's movie but it definitely is odd and a little more than creepy. There's also a mean streak which runs through the film and adds to the slightly unsettling tone a number of scenes touch on.

That said, there's also a lot of inventiveness and a couple of touching moments like when James walks on Grasshopper playing the violin which is a lovely scene until it descends into a weird music video with toy globes in a song about love. And maybe that is the scene which best captures the disjointed nature of the film, shifting gears for no reason and little warning.

I guess it's just a lot of smoke and noise.


References:

James and the Giant Peach (film) Wikipedia page

Nostalgia Critic: James and the Giant Peach

Reality, Dream and Animation: James and the Giant Peach - Tor.com

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