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Peaches N' Dreams: Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach

Before being adapted to the screen, Roald Dahl's children's book, Jamesand the Giant Peach captured the imagination of several generations of readers since it was first published in 1961.

Before being adapted to the screen, Roald Dahl's children's book, James and the Giant Peach captured the imagination of several generations of readers since it was first published in 1961.

Director Henry Selick and the Giant Peach. © Walt Disney Pictures

James is the story of an orphaned boy and his dream of going to New York City, "the place where dreams come true", his parents told him, before they were eaten by a wild rhinoceros. With the help of some magic crocodile tongues, the lonely little boy's dream turns into a fantastic adventure when he crawls inside a giant peach inhabited by a family of anthropomorphised insects. Obviously, this is not your typical Hollywood story, even for an animated film.

Dahl's writing is, by its nature, essentially macabre and outrageous--which is also what makes it so delicious; in this, it is much like the early (pre-Nightmare Before Christmas) films of director Henry Selick, who has now brought Dahl's film to the screen.

Roald Dahl turned down several movie offers for the book over the years, because he felt that it would be nearly impossible to translate the story into film. But when the late author's widow, Felicity, was approached by Selick, she was so impressed with his accomplishments in animation that she offered him the opportunity to adapt the story for the screen.

From his training at CalArts and beginnings at Disney, to his years producing award-winning commercials and MTV station ID's, Selick has developed an unparalleled imaginative style, making him one of the most innovative directors working in the animation industry today.

James and the grasshopper. © Walt Disney Pictures

As a fan of both artists' work, I was pleased with Selick's adaptation, which lacks the saccharin sweetness, unrealistic smarminess or gushy romantic subplots one comes to expect (and dread) in Disney films. Karey Kirkpatrick, who co-authored the screenplay, noted that, "One of the big challenges in writing the script was to stay true to the book while giving it the stronger emotional drive that it needed to work as a film." There are, of course, the usual moral fibers woven into the story, mostly in the heartwarming but unnecessary musical score; but even the songs are tastefully and appropriately incorporated into the overall plot.

The team that brought Dahl's story to life on the screen have produced a virtually seamless blend of stop-motion animation, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and live-action. Selick put together quite a crew, including several talented artists from the Nightmare Before Christmas production team, such as Animation Supervisor Paul Berry, as well as contributors with experience in other areas, such as Visual Effects Supervisor Nancy St. John (Babe). Peach's visual sophistication and level of technical finesse far surpasses that of Nightmare, proof that Selick has molded a production company that has finally found its voice.

In developing the film's striking visual style, Selick turned to illustrator Lane Smith, creator of such acclaimed children's books as Math Curse, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and the wonderfully wacky The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Selick, who had long wanted to work with Smith, describes his style as "glowing paintings that are just wonderful and filled with lots of mystery and style. His work looks like a cousin of my own, only a little sweeter."

James and the spider. © Walt Disney Pictures

Smith, a long-time fan of Dahl's writing, recalls that, "Contractually, I was only supposed to do 20 inspirational paintings and designs, but I ended up doing 50. It was also supposed to be just a 6-month job, but I stayed on for a couple of years just because it was really fun." Smith's first experience working on a big screen film seems to have been a positive one for him, as he is finally considering developing The Stinky Cheese Man as an animated film.

The inspirational paintings Smith created for the film have been published in a Disney "storybook version" of the book, and it's worthwhile buying it just to see Smith's fantastic artistry. Dahl's family was so pleased with Smith's inspirational artwork that they commissioned a set of illustrations for a new edition of the original novel, wholly different than those used for the film.

Lately, there has been a growing trend of feature films combining animation and live-action. The challenge they all face is how to bring about a unity of design. Harley Jessup, Peach's production designer, notes that, "A big issue in terms of production design was how to blend and relate the live-action beginning and end with the animated world. We wanted the live-action world to be much more monochromatic and the animated sequences to be rich in saturated color and much more expansive in feel." Jessup did a notable job of marrying the two worlds by adding a sense of the surreal to the live-action using forced-perspective sets, and a sense of the hyperreal to the animated sequences through the use of computer-generated effects.

"We made a decision early on," Selick recalls, "that we would start our film in a very stylized and muted live-action world that would look almost like a stage play or an opera set. That way, when we entered the world of animation, it would be more magical. By saving animation for when James enters the peach, it adds to the strength of the fantasy."

One of the film's most impressive scenes is when James faces his ultimate fear--a terrifically terrifying and huge rhinoceros--emerging from the clouds towards him. In the book, the rhinoceros situation is inherently nonsensical to begin with, and the seriousness with which they represented it in the film embraced its delightful ridiculousness. This scene was actually produced in a relatively old-fashioned manner, with an underwater puppet, cloud tanks and cel animated lightning effects.

The shark scene, however, seems rather gratuitous. What happened to the school of real sharks described in the book? Although technically impressive, the gigantic computer-generated mechanical monster (i.e., shark) seems to be more of a drastically out of place World War II metaphor than an integral part of the story. It is a pretty long scene, and after awhile I found myself seeing the shark as a visual metaphor for the overbearing technology which is replacing traditional, organic techniques of animation.


Peaches N' Dreams

On the other hand, the sequence following the scene where James is tucked into a web bed by Miss Spider after a rowdy round of peach-eating and singing is something else. You know what they say about how eating before bed affects your dreams? Well, don't blink, because what follows should make all animation fans start eating peaches at bedtime. The dream sequence is a daringly experimental 30 second mini-masterpiece that employs two-dimensional cutout animation, much in the manner of Selick's Slow Bob In The Lower Dimensions (1990) done for MTV.

Another instance of Selick's unique visual style is reserved for the die-hard credit-watchers. At credit's end, there's a brief but clever sequence in the style of his freakish MTV Top of the Hour spots. It features "Spike the Aunts," an 18th century-style mechanical toy which plays revenge on James' wicked aunts. A thoroughly delightful sequence, obviously created just for the fun of it, but representative of the charm and brio that characterizes the whole film.

James' delightful insects companions. © Walt Disney Pictures

What's next for Selick and his team of talents? As part of a three-picture deal with Miramax, Selick's San Francisco based production company, Twitching Image will create a movie version of another unusual children's book, Toots and the Upside-Down House by Carol Hughes. In development now, the film will be yet another marriage of live-action, stop-motion and CGI.

Production on Toots will start next summer, and in the interim, Twitching Image animators are being provided with finishing funds to complete a handful of animated shorts. Finally, a studio that realizes the value of fostering the talent and imagination of its' individual contributors. Henry Selick understands this concept well; after all, his own creative inspirations are rooted in the films he produced independently.

Wendy Jackson is a Sales Representative for Animation World Network. Previously employed as General Manager of the International Animated Film Society's Los Angeles chapter (ASIFA-Hollywood), she coordinated events such as the 1995 Annie Awards and the 1996 Animation Opportunities Expo.