James and the Giant Peach
1996, PG, 80 min. Directed by Henry Selick. Voices by Simon Callow, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Pete Postlethwaite, Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Leeves, Susan Sarandon, David Thewlis.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., April 12, 1996
Do you recall how the world looked to you as a child? Everything was so huge. Buildings, furniture, grown-ups -- they all dwarfed you, some of them so large as to seem monstrous. And as you had yet to master the pretzel logic of adults, much of this giant's land was a mystery. If a thing delighted you, it was a wonder; if it frightened you, it was a terror. Roald Dahl remembered that viewpoint. His children's books pit the very small against the very large and pulse with magic and horror. In bringing Dahl's James and the Giant Peach to the screen, director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and his gigantic team of artists, animators, and other creative collaborators have preserved the author's diminutive, fantastic perspective and created a vision of childlike wonder and terror. James (Terry) toils for a pair of cruel aunts (Lumley and Margoyles, dishing up enough pasty-faced malevolence to make Margaret Hamilton shudder) until a bag of crocodile tongues makes a peach swell to mammoth size, and James escapes on it. With a coterie of enchanted bugs, James steers the Big Peach to the Big Apple, where he hopes to build a new life. Selick and crew realize the tale in truly fantastic fashion, first in deliriously stagy live action, then in stunningly detailed and fluid stop-motion animation. The film echoes The Wizard of Oz in its use of two formats to distinguish between James' “real” and magical experiences, but it also recalls that film in the way it fleshes out the characters with familiar comic types -- the sultry Russian vamp, the dowdy British matron, the monocled English gent, even da bruiser from Brooklyn, if youse can believe it; in its wealth of warmth and humor (the film is stuffed with puns); in the way the performances all have that classic feel -- they make you feel you've known these characters all your life -- and in how James' journey is about finding strength within himself and family in others. And most like Oz, James is awash in wonder. We see it in a flash of a ladybug's bloomers, a grasshopper playing a violin, a spider tucking a boy in a bed of webs. In virtually every frame, the world looks fresh, big, and mysterious, as it would to a child, and as it should here. James arrives on the 25th anniversary of another splendid film based on a Roald Dahl book, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I hope we don't have to wait another quarter-century for the next great Dahl adaptation, but for a film as good as this one, I'll wait.