James and the Giant Peach (1996, dir Henry Selick)
Roald Dahl seemed to understand children. His novels speak to them, both exploring the darker side of life that they are unwilling, or unable to speak about to adults but also to that sense of wonderment that the world has to offer one who has only a minimal experience with it. The best adaptations of his work capture both things and cater to the child watching and not to the adult. This is not to say that adults can’t enjoy those works, but that it’s not the adult that matters.
James and the Giant Peach tells the story of James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) who is living comfortably with his father and mother in a small cottage by the sea. They picnic, find shapes in clouds and talk about visiting New York City on his birthday. It is in the cloud shapes that the narrator tells us, with the image provided by the clouds themselves, that James life changes when his father and mother are tragically killed by an escaped Rhinoceros.
We are propelled forward in the story and James now lives with his Aunts, Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) who treat him very poorly: He is forced to sleep in a leaky attic, made to do all manner of chores and tasks, and fed fish heads and bits of food that he rescues from the garbage. Spiker and Sponge are detestable Ms. Lumbley and Ms. Margolyes play them in such a way as to not simply make the characters cruel, but downright loathsome.
While rescuing a spider a strange old soldier (Pete Postlethwaite) finds James and gives him a bag of crocodile tongues. The soldier warns him not to spill the contents of the bag and that they will bring him happiness and adventure. Shortly thereafter James trips, spilling the tongues on the ground next to an old dead peach tree below his aunt's house.
A tree near where the tongues spilled grows a giant peach and Sponge and Spiker proceed to sell tickets for the public to see it. After the crowds have left they send James out to pick up the garbage around the peach. He decides to take a bite of peach and as he does one of the lost crocodile tongues burrows its way into into the handful of peach and is eaten by James. Spiker and Sponge come looking for him and he crawls into the hole in the peach that he had made. He transforms as he crawls into the peach from a real little boy to his stop motion counterpart and soon discovers giant magical bugs inside.
The bugs: Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), Mr. Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Mr. Centipede (Richard Dreyfus), Mrs. Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Earthworm (David Thewlis) and Glowworm (Miriam Margolyes) quickly become James’ friends. They cut loose the peach from the tree and then set out to go to New York City.
The movie, like many stop motion films seem to, is a musical. With only four songs, and the closing credits song “My Name Is” sung by Randy Newman, it barely qualifies. Unlike the musical numbers for the film the Corpse Bride, I didn’t feel the songs detracted from this film.
The acting is ok: Paul Terry is charming as James, and both actress playing Sponge and Spiker are perfect. The voice acting in the rest of the film isn’t bad by any means, but isn’t particularly great either, the actors (all of whom are fantastic actors in their own right) just didn’t fully click with me.
The animation is wonderful though. I love stop motion and if the entire film had been stop motion I would have been pleased. It’s not however, but what is there is great. I would love to see more from Henry Selick as he seems to have a knack for stop motion films. Stop motion seems to be going through a small resurgence and I hope with the technological advances made with computers adding the effort of the puppeteers we will see more of them in the years to come.
The live action sequences are very surreal and this fits the film and the story well. There’s never a full sense of time period, but one get’s the impression that it’s long ago. There’s also a dream like sense to the live action sequences.
The question is: should you watch it? Yes. Absolutely! Mr. Dahl’s stories are magical when done correctly and that, to me is in always in disregard to the adults that might be watching. James and the Giant Peach is a magical film for children that adults that haven’t forgotten their inner child can enjoy.