James and the Giant Peach
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
April 11, 1996
James and the Giant Peach is pleasantly diverting, but it could have been so much more.
As directed by MTV-veteran and Tim Burton protégé Henry Selick (The Nightmare before Christmas), this puppet animation adaptation of the Roald Dahl story has much to recommend it. The animation is nothing shy of spectacular. Those old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV-specials and Ray Harryhausen movies (like Jason and the Argonauts) look prehistoric compared to this. Selickís animated creatures move with a grace and expressiveness that is almost alien to the medium. At times you almost want to reach into screen and feel if these beasts have pulses.
Unlike The Nightmare before Christmas, Selick has material that can be as amazing as his images. Dahlís childrenís stories (heís the creator of Willy Wonka) have lots of fanciful characters that delight kids, and his observant wit make them easy for adults to tolerate. Dahl also takes some sharp attacks at adult foibles like greed and vanity while heís entertaining kids. In this tale, a lonely English lad named James (rookie Paul Terry) is miserable because he has lost his parents and is now living with his grotesque aunts (Miriam Margolyes and the hilarious Joanna Lumley from TVís Absolutely Fabulous) who appear to have learned their parenting skills from the Gestapo. If he isnít starving or slaving, James can only look forward to his cold, dreary room where the closest thing he has for a friend is a spider in the window.
Jamesí fortunes improve when a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite from The Usual Suspects) gives him a bag loaded with magical contents. The contents fall out of the bag near a dead peach tree, and the tree sprouts an enormous piece of fruit. James gets inside the peach and meets his first real playmates, only theyíre not the kind he would have imagined--theyíre giant bugs. With the help of the critters, James sets out for New York so he can see the city he only knows about from his fatherís stories.
Dahlís basic story line is intact, and there are several lines from the script by Dennis Potter, Jonathan Roberts, Karey Kirkpatrick and Steve Bloom that are worthy of the original author. Unfortunately, Selick tells his story in a rushed manner that prevents us from getting to know the delightful characters better. Like Burton, Selick creates dazzling scenes but has difficulty getting a complete story across. In addition, Selickís use of live action at the beginning and end of the film is puzzling because the cartoonish nature of these segments prevents a sense of wonder once the animation begins.
Randy Newmanís songs are also a surprising liability. While his characteristically clever lyrics and musical prowess are on display, his songs simply arenít catchy and donít stay with you after the show is over. Unlike the songs from Beauty and the Beast or even the ones Newman wrote for Toy Story, these tunes are time killers that derail the story instead of helping it.
The voice casting, however, is impeccable. Susan Sarandon is delightfully cool and sultry as the spider, and Richard Dreyfuss is a lot of fun as a pugnacious centipede. Itís too bad they donít give Oscars for cartoon voices because Sarandon deserves another statuette for her work here. Thanks to her, James and the Giant Peach is hardly the pits, but it could still use a lot more juice (PG) Rating: 6.
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