JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, 1996
Cast: Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Leeves, Susan Sarandon, Pete Postlethwaite, Miriam Margolyes
James' happy life at the English seaside is rudely ended when his parents are killed by a rhinoceros and he goes to live with his two horrid aunts. Daringly saving the life of a spider he comes into possession of magic boiled crocodile tongues, after which an enormous peach starts to grow in the garden. Venturing inside he meets not only the spider but a number of new friends including a ladybug and a centipede who help him with his plan to try and get to New York.
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We lost a brilliantly twisted mind when we lost Roald Dahl, whose so-called children’s books have entertained and disturbed kids for decades. Dahl’s works have inspired several film adaptations, all of which have tried to emulate the author’s unique balance of whimsy and unadulterated horror. In adapting “James and the Giant Peach” to film, screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, and Steve Bloom succeed in capturing the spirit of Dahl’s dark imagination while adding creative new touches.
When a rhinoceros devours his parents before his very eyes, James Henry Trotter is forced to live in the “care” of his aunts Spiker and Sponge. As cruel as they are hideous, these hags make James’ life a misery. One day, the boy meets a strange old man who offers him a bag full of enchanted crocodile tongues (but of course), promising that they will change James’ life. Unfortunately, James spills the bag, and all the magic meant for him wriggles into the roots of a barren peach-tree. When the tree produces a peach the size of a house, the aunts see an opportunity to make some money. It seems James’ dreams have gone up in smoke, but one night, he makes an incredible discovery. Crawling through a tunnel in the side of the peach, the boy finds himself face-to-face with a group of giant talking bugs. With his newfound friends, James intends to travel to New York City, a place his parents had dreamed of visiting.
If all this sounds weird, it is, but it’s also highly enjoyable. Director Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline”) brings Roald Dahl’s novel to life with humour and creativity. The story is told through both live action and stop-motion animation, creating a clear division between James’ life before and after the introduction of magic. The film begins with an idyllic, hyper-real version of the perfect childhood, but then degenerates into a cold vision of James’ life with his aunts. Things are already strange before we get to the stop-motion portion of the film, but when James finally makes his journey to the center of the peach, that’s when Selick kicks it up a notch. Get ready for spider-web lassoes, undead pirates, and a steampunk shark.
And musical numbers.
Child actors are notoriously hit-and-miss, but Paul Terry is a winner as James. Whether playing the part live or lending his voice to the stop-motion version of the character, Terry exudes honesty and inner strength. As James’ aunts, seasoned comedic actresses Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margoyles are terrific. Lumley, usually so elegant, is especially unsettling as Spiker. Thanks to the make-up department, here she looks a little like someone’s unearthed a corpse, dusted off the soil and slapped a wig on it. Pete Postlethwaite has a cameo as the old man, and delivers several of the most meaningful lines in the movie.
The songs by Randy Newman are catchy, and one, “Eating the Peach,” features lyrics lifted straight out of Dahl’s novel.
“James and the Giant Peach” is an underrated movie, having never attained the cult status of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (on that note, watch out for a certain “skellington” in the pirate ship sequence). Looking back on it now, it’s a worthy tribute to Roald Dahl’s bizarre imagination, and a charming family film in its own right. With an adventurous spirit and beautiful animation, it’s proof that when a good story meets talent and creativity, “marvellous things will happen.”