James and the Giant Peach

[Screenshot]Plenty of Roald Dahl properties have been adapted, but this one doesn’t seem to have been touched until recently. Arguably, that’s because doing it as a live-action work would be impossible, but it might also be that it’s a pretty slight story. Given that your average book has way more material in it than casn fit into a movie, I’m always surprised when material not in a book appears in the film. Sometimes it’s as a way of compressing several things in the book, or of presenting material which isn’t very cinematic as originally in the book, or because the book had authentically bad parts and replacing them is an improvement. But James has an awful lot of meddling that doesn’t really fit any of these categories and makes the resulting work, I’d contend, weaker.

The book is straightforward: James escapes from his awful aunts, has silly adventures with giant creatures, and lands the peach in New York. there aren’t many antagonists there. We’ve got the aunts, but they’re dealt with early. The rest of the adventures mostly involve nature: winds, storms, sharks, and suchlike, and it works OK, as I remember it (it’s been a long time since I read it, actually). In contrast, the movie is full of rather peculiar persistence-of-malevolence. We get not just sharks, but robot sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads (which suggests some sort of mad robotocist out to get James). We get a reappearance of the horrible aunts at the end just for extra, pointless conflict. And then there’s the spectral rhino.

That one’s sort-of kind-of maybe in the book, actually, and it exemplifies the difference between Dahl, who knew just how far to go, and the somewhat more ham-handed creators of this film. See, in the book as well as the story, James’s parents had been eaten by a rhinoceros escaped from the zoo. That’s pretty much where Roald Dahl stops. It’s a fairly ridiculous origin story (particularly bearing in mind that rhinos are herbivores), and as a one-off dropped into the text it’s mildly amusing in a complete-irrelevancy way. In the movie the rhino is the omnipresent terror and Big Bad, so he gets mentioned a lot. Which suggests that the film-makers had one of two extremely erroneous beliefs: either they thought the rhino was delightfully absurd and figured if one mention is amusing, two hundred mentions would be side-splittingly funny, or, worse yet, they actually took the rhinoceros tragedy at face value and thought this momentous event needed fleshing out.

I spent a lot of time on the rhino there. It’s their own fault for spending so much time on it themselves. Time for technical aspects! There is stop motion. It’s extremely good, as befits a Selick/Burton production. There is singing. It’s OK.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.



[Screenshot]I’d picked this up out of a certain piqued curiosity: despite my frequent disappointment with adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s stories, I remain hopeful that someone will do one authentically good and true to the style of the original. And Netflix mentioned that it starred Tim Curry, so I was hopeful.

Alas, this SciFi orginal series (which probably should’ve been a warning, but Netflix didn’t mention that), is, as far as I can tell, a completely non-Wonderland-relevant story with Wonderland names tacked onto the characters. Really, the Queen of Hearts could’ve been Darth Vader and the Mad Hatter Han Solo and you’d have gotten a story with as much thematic relevance to its source material (maybe more relevance, since the rebels-against-an-evil-empire part is at least there). The story itself is passable but nothing that hasn’t been done before and done better, and it’s got a high-fantasy epic questiness that’s wholly mismatched with the light fantastic satire of the world it’s coopted.

Oh, and Tim Curry? He plays the Dodo, who keeps a library and who the Hatter goes to for help. He’s on screen for, like, 5 minutes. Curse you, Netflix!

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Le scaphandre et le papillon

[Screenshot]I haven’t read the book which this is inspird by and sort of connected to, and I didn’t even know who Jean-Dominique Bauby was before I watched it. Basing a film on a nonfiction book has to be one of the hardest things to do well: it encompasses the most difficult aspects of docudrama and book adaptation. Fortunately, both reality and Bauby’s text were up to telling a pretty compelling story here. It’s fortunate that Bauby had had such a glamorous and rich life to contrast his locked-in end with. I don’t really know how the retelling here stacks up against reality (I get a vague impression his wife and mistress had very different takes on his character, and that one or the other might have influenced this production) but except perhaps in these specifics there’s a definite sense of verisimillitude.

The acting and cinemacraft here is unspectacular but they really aren’t the focus anyways; as a vehicle for this interesting and introspective story they’re more than adequate.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


[Screenshot]Another day, another Miyazaki. I fear the Miyazaki clan (and Hayao himself is moving into an increasingly advisory role) is a bit past their golden years. So, despite the generally high production values and empathic characters, Ponyo as a whole left me kind of cold. I think a lot of it was the messiness of the plot, and the lack of any actual antagonist: the King of the Sea is a control freak and the obvious obstructionist, but he just doesn’t rise to any sort of effectual antagonism, nor do his actions make a whole lot of sense. It felt like it fell into an uncomfortable space between being wholly antagonist-free (like, say, Totoro), and having a credible, believable malign force bearing some responsibility for the hostility of nature (like, say, every other Miyazaki film). There’s plenty here that is good: as always, the art is lovely, with a special emphasis on aquatic scenes this time. The human characters are generally lovable and realistic. The dub seems pretty good, but Disney generally does a good job there (although whoever decided to fold a rap into the already-insufferable ending music should probably bew banished to projects where they can do no harm).

I din’t think any girls fly in this one. But Ponyo swims a lot, which is kind of like flying, only underwater.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network.