JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996) (***)
Based on the Roald Dahl’s book, director Henry Selick made this project his follow-up to the successful NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Bookended by a live-action opening and closing, this stop-motion feature is generally an episodic adventure following a classic tale of a young boy dreaming beyond his circumstances.
After the death of his parents, James Trotter (Paul Terry) becomes a virtual slave to his ghoulish aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley, TV’s ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes, BABE). One day he meets a wandering old man (Pete Postlewaite, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER), who gives him magic worms that he claims will help him attain his dream of getting from England to New York City. Spilling the worms on the ground, James sets off a series of events that grows a giant peach on a barren tree where human-sized bugs come to live.
One night, James indulges in a taste of the peach and is transported into a magical realm where the peach serves as a boat and him and the bugs attempt to navigate it across the Atlantic Ocean. As problems arise during the journey, James must think on his feet and deal with the personality conflicts between his peach-mates. Grasshopper (Simon Callow, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS), an English gentleman, often clashes with the New York blowhard Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss, JAWS). Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon, DEAD MAN WALKING) is a seductive beatnik, while Ladybug (Jane Leeves, TV’s MURPHY BROWN) is a no-nonsense motherly type. Earthworm (David Thewlis, HARRY POTTER) is the worrisome pessimist in the group and often serves as bait for the schemes, while the aged Glowworm (Margolyes) keeps hidden inside the peach.
The stop-motion animation is a treat. The fluidity of movement was even a step up from NIGHTMARE. The puppets are spot on representations of the illustrations from the book. The animation acting is particular good with the bug characters, giving them great expressive personalities. Grasshopper makes grand graceful movements, while Centipede is more staccato and raw. I loved how slinky Miss Spider moved, like a sultry cabaret dancer.
The live-action sequences are grim and shot on limited sets. Tone-wise the look works, but the grandeur of New York City in the days when the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world lacks the pizzazz it needs. The claustrophobia of the small and obviously fake sets fits James’ world at the start, but the sense of his success would have been sold so much more if Selick had the resources to open up the ending.
To make a feature length film, elements had to be added, including a sunken ship with skeleton pirates, giving Jack Skellington a cameo. Three uneventful songs, which include some of Dahl’s prose in the lyrics, were added as well. Composer Randy Newman did however receive an Oscar nomination for the film’s original music, which for me was no more memorable than the songs.
Over the course of his adventures, James gains confidence in himself and as unbelievable as his adventure was the story underlines that every great accomplishment starts with a dream. Selick, with the help of screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts and Steve Bloom, bring the tangential elements of the story together in the end. JAMES doesn’t have the spark of originality that NIGHTMARE had, but the oft-told tale it does tell is done compellingly through magical stop-motion animation and the drive to follow one’s dreams no matter how giant they are.