JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, was Henry Selickís follow-up to his classic THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. While NIGHTMARE has attained cult status, JAMES has never achieved the same fan base and thatís a shame. It has its flaws, but itís every bit as vibrant and imaginative as Selickís other work, including CORALINE.
Unlike CORALINE, Selick did not pen the script for JAMES. While his vision is indisputable, there is a touch of eerie whimsy that just isnít there amid the creepy crawlies, including the despicable aunts played by Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumely. He also made a bold decision to split the film into two distinct parts, a beginning and end that takes place in the live-action ďrealĒ world, and the stop-action animation world that takes place within the peach itself. Rumor has it that it was a cost-cutting measure, probably one that saved time, too, considering that the entire project took 12 years to complete, including development.
The eponymous James (Paul Terry) is an unfortunate English orphan, bereft of loving parents and placed in the distinctly unloving custody of his aunts, Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes). Tasked with the upkeep of the gloomy mansion they inhabit, James quickly discovers that food is a sometime thing, and a kind word completely unknown. With dreams of escaping, and a spider for company, James muddles through until a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite) with a bag full of magic appears telling the boy not to give up on his dreams, and a miraculous peach appears on the bare branch of a seemingly dead tree in his auntís otherwise blighted yard. One thing leads to another and James finds himself inside the giant fruit in the company of an assortment of incongruously giant invertebrates: a musical grasshopper (Simon Callow), a placid and bespectacled earthworm (David Thewliss), a motherly lady dub (Jane Leeves), a pugnacious centipede (Richard Dreyfuss) hailing from Brooklyn, and a spider (Susan Sarandon) with a French accent as silky as her web.
From the fanciful grotesquerie of the live-action, the film surrenders to a full flight of fantasy, literally and figuratively, as the peach takes flight thanks to a clever plan by James and a hapless flock of seagulls. The voyage is full of wonders and danger, and characters, with the exception of an underwritten glow worm (also voiced by Marolyes), as indelible as any found in the Selick oeuvre. The intricately detailed animation is rendered with Selick's trademark piquance and energy, and includes a cameo of Jack Skellington. In the shadowing introduction of the critters, a, youíll pardon the term, foreshadowing of some that will be found in CORALINE. Sarandon is the standout, using her voice to invest the logical sense of the natural order of things into her matter-of-fact explanation to James of why the others donít like her. The cooing accent slightly hypnotic, as befits a predator, and making the discomfiting multiple eyes and vicious fangs somehow beautiful.
There is no faulting the production design of the real world, the odd angles, the gothic fantasy untroubled by a mitigating sweetness that would have been sacrilege to the Dahl book. There is no faulting the initial transition, which finds James climbing into the giant peach and morphing from real little boy into his animation counterpart. The problem is that the stop-motion is far too enchanting to compete with live-action, even in the most capable hands of Marglyes and Lumley, who lovingly push the limits of ghastly in a PG-rated film. The letdown is at the end, when the film flips back into live-action, as it must in the interests of symmetry. Alas, it also forces Selick to mix the live-action James with the stop-motion critters and the magic loses a bit of its luster. The songs by Randy Newman are not showstoppers, but get the job done.
The best of the DVD extras is a behind-the-scenes look, all to brief, at the way stop-motion animation was done for the film, and too little of Selick waxing loquacious on the subject. Still, an imperfect film by Henry Selick is still a wonderment, and better than 90% of anything else out there. The tale itself with its genuine terrors, sharks at sea, pirates under that same sea, and the combination of dead parents and alienating living aunts at home, is the perfect vehicle for kids to channel their own particular inner fears into something fun and full of amazement. Adults wonít have much trouble doing that, either.