Better Than Dirt: James and the Giant Peach’s Earthworm

I watched James and the Giant Peach again recently. I never actually got to see it when it came out. I vaguely remember that my mother, for some reason, did not like it. I think maybe she just found Tim Burton's stop-motion shit weird in general because I remember having wanted to see The Nightmare Before Christmas too and we never did. So instead, I had a phase a few years after high school where I "caught up" on some of the Disney movies I missed out on and this was one of my favorites.

What I have been thinking about mostly since having rewatched it is how they translated the insects into their more "human" forms and then animated them to reflect both sides of that. Some of them, Grasshopper and Centipede, were made more humanoid with insect characteristics like their multiple arms and antennas. Others strike sort of a middle ground where they have rather unavoidable insect characteristics that need to be accounted for. Ladybug's large round body and Glowworms's bioluminescent tail specifically. Then there's Earthworm and Spider, who could only really just be made as larger versions of their actual species.

Earthworm (who is voiced by the same guy who plays Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies) is particularly impressive to me because this presents a lot of limitations for expressing his character through his animation. He has no limbs, very little in the way of a face. Bodily, he's little more than a wriggling tube. He uses the end of his tail as a makeshift hand at times, twirling it around as he talks and holding things with it, but mostly, he needs to make the most of what little he has. It is perhaps for this reason that he gets slightly less screen time than most of the other insects (although far more than Glowworm who is pretty much just set lighting and a back-up singer).

In overcoming those restrictions, though, his character design is pretty cool.

He wears a shirt collar and a bow tie, both to imitate a worm's clitellum and, more importantly, easily differentiate his head from his ass. Bow ties, when not seen on debonair gentleman or comedians, are the sort of thing to be found on men best described as "unassuming" and there is no bug in this bunch of more modest standing than a worm. But the tie is droopy too, belying Earthworm's wet mop personality. He's a pessimist through and through, to the detriment and annoyance of everyone else. Trying to resolve this is a focal point of one of James' WHEN I WAS moral stories.

Even after learning to look at things in more positive way, though, he's still quick to revert to expecting the worst. His bodily movement reflects this fatalism whenever he goes into one of these fits. It reminds me a lot of silent film acting, where for lack of dialogue (or in his case, the ability to really gesticulate), the body was moved more dramatically in a way that looks comical without those limitations. When he's not shivering in a corner or in a full panic, he's lamenting their inevitable deaths by flopping around languidly.

He does lend himself to physical comedy occasionally, though.

One thing I found particularly amusing is that Earthworm, despite having no ears, claims to have "exquisite hearing". This proves to be true, as he is the first to hear the mechanical shark's approach, followed by Spider. He presses his head up against the wall of the peach to "hear" this, but it seems he is more "listening" to the vibrations. Rather apt for a worm to have his "ear to the ground". This explains why Spider is able to hear it next; she's sitting on her web when this happens, so she can feel the vibrations too.

Later on, during the underwater pirate scene, he "listens" to Spider's tether and declares that it "sounds like big trouble".

The best thing about him, I think, is his glasses.

Earthworm is blind and wears sunglasses at all times. They literally serve as his eyes as far as emoting goes. The shape of the lenses changes to reflect how his eyes might look if they were more than little squinty slits. (I found an auction where they were selling Earthworm's puppet here. You can see both Earthworm's eyes without glasses as well as the interchangeable lenses.) I find it reminiscent of early Spy vs. Spy strips where their sunglasses did the same thing. (Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Spies today are drawn to merely have large black eyes.)

I took these caps in the space about about five seconds. In that time, he went through four different lens changes.

Earthworm's sunglasses end up being important later in that they go from being the mark of his blindness to his marketable attribute. At the end of the movie, each of the insects goes on to have some sort of notable career, as displayed in the newspapers. Earthworm becomes the spokesman for some sort of skin cream that apparently attracts sexy women. His glasses make him cool now, in the ranks of Stevie Wonder, Anna Wintour, and Cory Hart.

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  1. kleonix 2012.08.17 5:59am

    Only you could make worms interesting.

    Also clearly Mr. Earthworm would benefit from possession of Rarity’s fainting couch. But he’d have to be very careful not to get dirt on it.

    • DJ 2012.08.17 2:02pm

      I actually did think about Rarity’s fainting couch in the process of all of this.


July 2020