James and the Giant Peach (1996) dir. Henry Selick
Starring: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Pete Postlethwaite, Miriam Margolyes
By Alan Bacchus
I can’t believe it’s been 14 years since this movie, and 17 years since A Nightmare Before Christmas – a remarkable double-shot of painstaking, onerous, yet thoroughly delightful stop motion animated features from Henry Selick. While the stop motion animation holds up remarkably well compared to the best animation of today, the live action sequences and in particular the musical numbers back date the film to 14 years ago.
This time ‘round Selick adapts Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book ‘James and the Giant Peach’ for the big screen. Dahl’s story features a young boy James, saddened by the death of his parents in a violent storm, who now lives an oppressed life under the guardianship of his two nasty aunts Spiker and Sponge. Then a mysterious stranger appears with a solution to his problem, a bag of crocodile tongues which have the power to make his dreams come true. This comes in the form of a giant peach which grows in his yard, and which James uses to sail to New York City and complete the unfulfilled dream of his parents.
Selick employs both live action and stop motion in this time – live action to show the world of James at home on land, and in the real world, and animation once James is inside the peach and on his journey toward the big apple – a clever cinematic pun which may or may not have been intended.
The live action world doesn’t hold as well as Selick’s glorious animation process. The opening 20mins or so before James enters his peach fantasy world is adequate but not inspired fantasy stuff. Once James is on his journey, the film comes alive. James’ new friends, Old Green Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mr. Earthworm, Miss Spider, Mrs. Ladybug, and Glowworm are distinct and quirky characters reminiscent of the skewed townsfolk of Nightmare’s Halloween town - and for fun, Jack Skellington even has a cameo as the captain of a sunken pirate ship.
Like Nightmare, the narrative is peppered with a dozen or so musical numbers, most of which are unmemorable, and at least from these cynical adult viewer’s eyes, don’t add much, and maybe even detract from the enjoyment of the picture. It unfortunately dates the film badly, back to the Disney classically animated period of the 90’s when everything was animated as a song and dance movie. Now, as evidenced by Selick’s Coraline and most of the CG animated films of today, these sequences of characters digressing into song and dance are rarity.
Selick/Dahl present a number of well-constructed and resonate themes which arc throughout the action. After being subjugated by his aunt via the peach James is allowed to become a leader, be responsible and commit his boyhood rite of passage. There’s also a bit of cold revenge in the here as well, as the second act climaxes with his confrontation with the evil storm marvellously transformed into the form of a charging rhinoceros.
Overall, while Nightmare exploded with action, comedy, music and that dark edge of Tim Burton, James and the Giant Peach is light, fluffy, satisfying but no classic.
“James and the Giant Peach” is available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment