Since his death in 1990, the late British author Roald Dahl has only strengthened his relationship with international cinema. Dahl, perhaps most famous in America as the husband who nursed Patricia Neal through crippling strokes and promptly left her, wrote about the world of adults with the same acrid wit and perverse fatalism he devoted to children and their universe.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) was the most prominent Dahl adaptation during the author's lifetime, and it tattooed many young filmgoers with an unforgettable indictment of childish greed and the adults who encourage it. The Witches (1990) proved that a strange sympathy existed between kinky British director Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth) and Dahl. Anjelica Huston sealed their creepy union with a sexy, surly lead performance as the Grand High Witch who could detect the stench of a child from miles away. And the Dahl movie machine rolls forward with the summer release of the writer's Matilda: It's a big-budget black comedy in which Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, portraying The Stupidest Parents in the World, nearly smother the spirit of their bright daughter.
Certain ideas run obsessively throughout the children's fiction written by Roald Dahl: Adults are unreliable at best and cruel exploiters at worst; the specter of death is an anxiety that must be faced by all children, even the most privileged; and courage offers the best defense against betrayal, one of the world's certainties.
James and the Giant Peach preserves all Roald Dahl's misanthropic themes inside a loopy, deeply symbolic animated epic about a terrified little boy who journeys toward the dreamland described by his late parents, who, during an African vacation, were eaten by a rhinoceros.
The film begins as a live-action movie in exaggerated storybook script. The orphaned James (Paul Terry) comes to live with his grotesque aunts, the sisters Spiker (Ab Fab's Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (the Oscar-nominated Miriam Margoyles). They are hideous harpies crippled by vanity and self-indulgence (two favorite Dahl targets) who keep the imaginative James as a personal slave.
James is freed by a stranger (Pete Postlethwaite from The Usual Suspects) who's basically a pusher offering the golden seedlings of his escape. What James gets is a bag of glowing, wormlike germs, which soon cause a gigantic peach to grow on a gnarled tree in the aunts' yard.
James and the Giant Peach was probably rescued as a viable production for Disney by the deep family bonds forged between James and a sexy spider with a French accent (the voice of Susan Sarandon); a cigar-chomping centipede from the streets of Brooklyn (Richard Dreyfuss); a prim and proper ladybug with a killer handbag (Jane Leeves from TV's Frasier); a blind, fretful earthworm (David Thewlis); and a grasshopper (Simon Callow) with a taste for the finer things. They're all inhabitants of the fat, juicy peach that James enters to escape his awful aunts. A squabbling mob the lot of them, they provide James the chance to be hero and conqueror during a scary seaside voyage to the fabled New York.
The film's nucleus is James trying to understand each of these oversensitive insects while he pushes toward fabled New York City, "home of the tallest building in the world." In contemporary movie language, an orphan boy who insists on traveling to the Big Apple on a Big Peach would wind up a hustler on the streets.
Roald Dahl never hesitated to address hard truths in his shortest, simplest tales for children, but he also declared that the roughest environments were ripe for child conquest. In his universe, relatives are scammers waiting for the right opportunity, while strangers can be the best friends a child has. What matters most is the kid's personal integrity. (Note to parents: Dahl has never been concerned with the potential threat posed by unknown adults, which makes his fanciful flights all the more dangerous for audiences.)
And so the postcard Gotham which closes The Giant Peach is an Art Deco theme park where every policeman, innocent bystander, and street-corner urchin takes a kid seriously. Today we fret about the accuracy and morality of children's testimony during a criminal trial. Roald Dahl, however acid-tongued a prose stylist, was always an advocate for the truth told by young tongues. He drops boys and girls into the most contentious situations and waits with a patient ear till they float to the surface and answer his question: Will grownup folly harden their little spirits, or will their innocence be justified and preserved?
Director Henry Selick graduated from featured animator on Disney's The Fox and the Hound to award-winning video artist for MTV, then to the name atop 1993's operatic The Nightmare Before Christmas. He repeats his love for the musical number--James and the Giant Peach features four show-stoppers, all of them written by Randy Newman--but focuses this time on a much smaller cast of fantastic characters. Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas will notice that that movie's hero Jack Skellington makes a return appearance here as a drowned pirate who won't relinquish a prize for the centipede.
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James and the Giant Peach drags during the live-action sequences that open and close the film. Selick clearly hasn't much experience handling live actors. Paul Terry is heartbreaking enough as he croons "My Name is James" inside a dank upstairs prison, situated atop what must be producer Tim Burton's favorite visual--the haunted house on the hill. (The image appears in his live-action short Frankenwiener, in Beetlejuice, and in Edward Scissorhands.) Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margoyles, all green-toothed and spider-veined, should be a lot scarier than they are. Unfortunately, Selick confuses a clever art design with just another background matte. He lets his flesh-and-bone actors bounce off one another enthusiastically but without the malicious discipline that cements the Dahl vision in Willy Wonka and The Witches.
Ultimately, the 45 minutes of stop-motion, computer-generated, and traditional animation at the center of James and the Giant Peach do justice to Roald Dahl's peppery plot twists. The ultracautious producers at Disney have trimmed a few of the author's coarse edges--in the 1961 book, Spiker and Sponge were crushed by the rolling peach--but otherwise maintain the story's cynical integrity.
James and the Giant Peach doesn't just tell children to believe in themselves, it demonstrates why they must--to survive in a world where grownup foolishness can kill. Adrift atop a giant peach borne by sea gulls, this animated James would make Dahl proud--a timid but resourceful Moses for the confused adult mob.
James and the Giant Peach. Walt Disney. Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, and the voices of Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Simon Callow. Written by Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, and Steve Bloom, adapted from the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Henry Selick. Now showing.