James and the Giant Peach (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Almost everything that was true of 1993's Nightmare Before Christmas holds for 1996's James and the Giant Peach. Based (rather faithfully) on Roald Dahl's children's story, this movie uses a combination of live-action sequences and stop-motion animation to tell the tale of a lonely boy, James (Paul Terry), who finds love during a bizarre, transatlantic voyage in the innards of a gargantuan peach. His companions on the journey are a grasshopper, a centipede, a spider, an earthworm, a glow worm, and a ladybug. In the hands of Henry Selick, who directed Nightmare, this weird story has been transformed into a playful, visually arresting experience with more than a few allusions to The Wizard of Oz.

In this case, the destination isn't Oz, but New York City, which, as envisioned by Selick, is a magical, ethereal place. The story takes place during an era when the Empire State Building is the world's tallest building, and James and the Giant Peach becomes the second movie to place an overgrown object at its pinnacle. Between England (where the story begins, with James suffering under the repressive thumbs of two ogre-like aunts) and New York, the peach, which is propelled by a flock of harnessed birds, has an ocean splashdown and takes a detour to frozen northern reaches.

Obviously, the primary reason to see James and the Giant Peach is for its visual splendor. Selick's stop-motion animation is, in its own way, as impressive as the technological marvels of Toy Story. James' creatures, which include insects, skeletons, birds, and a large-headed boy, are wonderfully exaggerated, but never grotesque. The live-action sequences, which comprise over one-third of the running length, are filmed on intentionally-overstated sets that contribute to a surreal atmosphere not unlike the one visited by Jeunet and Caro in Delicatessan and The City of Lost Children. Only when real actors and animated characters interact does the visual chicanery slip up.

Of course, all but the youngest children (who could be frightened by certain scenes) will be delighted by the film, and, as was true of Nightmare, the script is written to succeed on more than one level. There are some deliciously wicked lines that few youngsters will get. This crisp dialogue is delivered by the likes of Susan Sarandon (the spider), Simon Callow (the grasshopper), David Thewlis (the earthworm), and Richard Dreyfuss (the centipede), actors with effective vocal presences.

Unfortunately, the film makers have decided to include several completely forgettable musical numbers penned by Randy Newman. Not only are these totally superfluous, but there are times when they hurt the film's pacing. I'd like to know who made the decision that every Disney animated film, no matter who's doing the animation, has to have a share of songs.

Dorothy, accompanied by a dog, a Scarecrow, a Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion, followed the yellow brick road. James, along with a pack of oversized bugs, follows his dreams. Both reach their destinations, and, once there, discover that it's what they learned on the trip that really matters. In the final analysis, James and the Giant Peach is undemanding entertainment with a subtle message. While the film isn't quite as accomplished as a Toy Story or a Beauty and the Beast, it's still worth a trip to the theater, especially for those who enjoy things that are a little unconventional.

James and the Giant Peach (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 1996-04-12
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1