James and the Giant Peach

on April 12, 1996 by Christine James
   That author Roald Dahl, master of the macabre, wrote children's books in the first place is an irony in itself. Call it poetic justice, then, that Henry Selick, the director behind the ghoulish "The Nightmare Before Christmas," helms the part live-action, part animated adaptation of Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach." Both "Nightmare" and "James" are kids' films that perhaps aren't totally appropriate for children, each tainted slightly by a Disney-on-acid obliqueness--to the joy of older audiences with a somewhat skewed sense of humor.
   The story opens with James (Paul Terry) and his loving parents happily cloud-gazing on a beach, discussing plans to travel one day to an idyllically described New York. Their familial bliss, however, is soon shattered when a rhinoceros comes out of nowhere and devours mum and dad. Orphaned James is forced to live on the desolate estate of his despicable aunts, Sponge ("Balto's" Miriam Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley of TV's "Absolutely Fabulous"), two abhorrent, sadistic women who put James to work and starve him.
   One day, while trying to rescue a spider from his insect-loathing, pesticide-armed aunts, James runs into a mysterious, eclectically-garbed man ("The Usual Suspects'" Pete Postlethwaite) who knows all about James' miserable dilemma and gives him a bag full of glowing, squirmy, magical creatures which, the man asserts, will transform the boy's life. Unfortunately, in trying to scramble away from Sponge and Spiker, James drops the bag, and the magic things burrow into the ground, destined to cast their spell upon whatever they encounter under the earth. Instantly, a peach begins to bloom on a long-dead tree. It grows rapidly to the size of a basketball, then a boulder, and finally settles in at the size of an average house. Sponge and Spiker realize the peach's commercial value and begin charging admission to glimpse the fruit. After the hordes leave, James is sent out to pick up all the garbage left by the crowd. When he wanders near the peach, he can't help but take a forbidden bite. At the exact moment he devours a handful, a stray magic thingy bounces into James' mouth, transforming him into an adventure-bound Claymation-type James who enters a hole in the peach and crawls through the tunnel until he encounters a group of giant anthropomorphized bugs.
   The insects welcome James, recalling his kindness prior to their transmogrification when the boy would protect them from his aunts. When the feared Sponge and Spiker are heard to be approaching the peach, a feisty Bronx-accented caterpillar (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss) conceives of an escape as he snaps the branch holding the peach so that the giant fruit rolls down the hillside and into the nearby ocean. From there, the group of physiologically and behaviorally divergent creatures must band together and overcome their differences and quarrels in order to navigate the peach to New York, where they feel all their troubles will be solved.
   Along the journey, James and the insects teach each other--and young audience members--some solid life lessons as they work out personality flaws and other foibles. (During one exciting character-shaping escapade, look for "The Nightmare Before Christmas'" Jack Skellington in his cameo as a villainous pirate.)
   This very unconventional tale is well-told with an imaginative combination of live-action and stop-motion animation, all colored with Selick's uniquely dramatic, preternatural aesthetics. Given the general grimness of most fairy tales in which children are threatened to be consumed by all manner of creatures including witches, wolves and giants, "James and the Giant Peach" probably won't frighten the average child, but its dark edge will likely make it a cult favorite with adults. Starring Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes and Pete Postlethwaite. Voices by Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Leeves, Susan Sarandon and David Thewlis. Directed by Henry Selick. Written by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Bloom. Produced by Denise Di Novi and Tim Burton. A Buena Vista release. Animated. Rated PG for some frightening images. Running time: 80 min
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