The Critics: A tale of mystery and imagination

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The heroine of James and the Giant Peach (U) is a knockout. She has a Louise Brooks hairdo, a seductively contemptuous Teutonic croon - a Marlene Dietrich without the gruffness - and bewitching yellow-green eyes. She wears an apache-style scarf and beret and has a penchant for stylish black boots with dominatrix heels. Unfortunately, she needs to wear three pairs at a time. She's a spider. This will be an erotic disappointment to all but the most fervent arachnophiles, but there are compensations, since almost every aspect of Henry Selick's beautiful animation has been conceived with the same degree of imaginative precision as Miss Spider's wardrobe. Like Selick's last feature, The Nightmare Before Christmas, the whole film has the pixillated air of a fantasy spun as much to satisfy its makers as to pander to the (presumed) taste of modern urchins.

Though its principal mode is stop-frame animation, this adaptation of the popular Roald Dahl story moves through a number of different styles and techniques. A live-action prologue, which shows little James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry, a sturdy lad) enjoying his last idyllic days with his parents, might have come straight from the pages of a British children's annual circa 1950; it's a baby-boomer's dream of Fair Isle sweaters and protected bliss. Then his parents die - by rhino charge, it appears - and this Blytonian world turns suddenly and shockingly into an expressionist nightmare ruled by his wicked aunts, Spiker (Joanna Lumley, selflessly hiding her beauty beneath cadaverous grey make-up) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes, who later doubles as the voice of a glow-worm).

James toils and suffers, with only fish-heads for recompense, but salvation is at hand in the person of a slightly alarming old loony (Pete Postlethwaite) who gives him a bag of luminous green fusilli that, one way or another, create the promised giant peach, into which James crawls, mutating en route from a flesh and blood boy into an animated puppet. Selick shoots this climb up into the peach as if it were a reverse trip along the birth canal - an effect underlined by the fact that the animated James has a head larger than his body, and thus resembles a foetus. From this point, the film becomes a dream of emigration. James takes the peach to the Big Apple, with the help of some bugs he finds inside it: the Grasshopper (voiced with fine pedantry by Simon Callow), the Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), the matronly Ladybug (Jane Leeves), that delectable spider (Susan Sarandon) and - the best vocal characterisation of the bunch - the lugubrious Earthworm (David Thewlis).

All of which is almost indecently delightful, so much so that it takes only a little charity to forgive the film its drippy songs by Randy Newman (Nightmare had quirkier and more pungent songs by Danny Elfman) and a somewhat too spelt-out and therapised set of morals about confronting your darkest fears head on: tough advice if, like James, your darkest fear happens to be a Zeppelin-sized rhino that charges out of storm clouds with red eyes blazing like the pits of hell. What with James and the Giant Peach and next week's admirable John Sayles film, The Secret of Roan Inish, you might well conclude that the spirit and vision conspicuously lacking in most adult products these days have gone to ground in movies meant for children.

If this thesis tempts you for more than a minute, check out Flipper (PG). It can't have been easy to strip marine wildlife of all its boundless fascination, but Flipper manages that job with consummate skill, and if your offspring prefer this plodding kiddie- comedy to James and the Giant Peach, you should either put them up for adoption or muse silently: " 'Tis new to thee." 'Twas certainly old hat to me and the other crumblies in the audience. Flipper the dolphin is, you will recall, an aquatic Lassie, who, in the old TV series, used to specialise in jiggling backwards in the water while making a yattering noise.

He's dumped that trick for the big screen, and concentrated on graceful leaping instead - when, that is, we are allowed to see him strut his stuff. Far too much of the action is set on land, where a sullen city boy (Elijah Wood) has been sent to bond for the summer with his tiresome old fisherman uncle (Paul Hogan), who is supposed to be a quondam roadie for the Beach Boys, though he'd pass for Crocodile Dundee in the thickest pea-souper. Alan Shapiro, who wrote and directed, has slipped in enough ecological niggling about toxic waste to suggest he's an environmentalist, and more than enough hoary jokes to suggest he believes in recycling. But the eco- sensitivity isn't very plausible, especially when one heavy threatens to put Flipper in a sideshow, jumping through hoops: wasn't anyone struck with the queasy reflection that this is exactly what Flipper does?

By way of supplement to the kiddie ration, three re-releases. In Hell, they set exam questions like this: "Describe, in 150 words or less, why a film about a bunch of French toffs mucking about in a country house has often been described by citizens of taste and intelligence as the greatest film ever made." OK, here goes: Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (PG - released in 1939, provoked a riot, was cut to ribbons by the producers, banned by the Nazis, and finally restored in 1956) is a farce about the upper classes and their servants which takes its cue from Beaumarchais, and now appears as pregnant with the coming war as Figaro was with the Revolution.

It's a tale of love, both true and affected, which quotes and attends to the aphorist Chamfort's bitter definition of that state as "the exchange of two fantasies and the contact of two epidermises"; a sublimely light- footed dance, which swirls elegantly in and around the chateau as if Fred Astaire rather than Jean Bachelet were the cameraman, yet includes an unwatchably barbaric scene of animals being slaughtered. It ends in murder. Some of its characters are not much better than idiots, and Renoir doesn't spare them, but they never cease to surprise - particularly Octave, played by Renoir himself, who dresses up as a bear and describes himself as a rate (loser), and who ... No, that doesn't even begin. But try to see it anyway.

The recent coup of Fargo is presumably behind the re-issue of the Coen brothers' 1983 debut Blood Simple (18), since its tale of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, purposes mistook and so on is the clearest precursor for their new hit. On its first release, most critics raved, though a minority of unbelievers thought it sophomoric - the work of a couple of tricksy, snickering brats who knew everything about maggoty B-movies and nothing about the world. A searching rebuke, but it slighted the precocious confidence and sheer mischief of the movie. Not many films of the past decade or so have created such a grungily memorable beast as M Emmett Walsh's nameless Private Detective - flies are always hovering around his sodden, perpetually unshaven jowls as if seeking their Lord - or have whipped up such a fug of everyday menace, in which even rolled newspapers can seem like deadly weapons. The siblings also showed an early gift for finding the right collaborators: Barry Sonnenfeld, whose lurid cinematography gave it the tawdry charm of an old horror comic, and Carter Burwell, whose fatalistic score was the most creepily insinuating deployment of two or three piano keys since John Carpenter's riff for Hallowe'en. Good, nasty fun.

Another blood-simple character raises his cloak to open the Barbican's summer season of 50-odd Hammer films. Terence Fisher's Dracula (18) takes a swift 82 minutes to trundle through the main elements of the old story, stripping down and re-locating the action from Transylvania, Whitby and London to an imaginary Germany where all the middle classes speak like pukka Brits, all the proles are jolly and most of the ladies have prominent breasts. How curious it seems to our gore-bespattered eyes that the early Hammers provoked such disgust in contemporary reviewers: compared, say, to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Fisher's modest, warm-hued little film might as well be entitled Jane Austen's Dracula.

And yet time has not quite tamed it all into mere quaintness. If it's hard to keep from giggling at the tuppeny-ha'penny budget, which cramps everything into three or four sets and requires some fast talking to justify the dearth of special effects ("That's a common fallacy," Peter Cushing, as Van Helsing, condescends to someone who opines that vampire can change into wolves or bats), some moments still compel respect. Christopher Lee, far and away the most handsome, patrician and English (dammit) of all Draculas, is also, once his face is properly tricked up with bloodshot contact lenses, the most truly frightening. When the camera cuts suddenly to his slender, haughty frame at the top of a stair, and the orchestral chords thunder, he's like the cinematic embodiment of an exclamation mark. And some of the film is as unexpectedly sexy as a spider in high heels.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.