Imagination is a rare commodity in Hollywood. The industry’s greatest irony is that despite the endless possibilities film has to offer, we rarely see anything new.
When a movie does capture our imagination, hold us hostage for an hour or two, and then release us full of new sounds, images and ideas, we cling to that film with glee.
With this in mind, I guarantee that those who grab onto James and the Giant Peach will find it difficult to let go.
An animated feature based on Roald Dahl’s 1961 children’s book of the same title does more than engage our imagination; it reminds us just how free-spirited, outrageous and original imagination can be.
For generations, children have been captivated by the fantastic story of a wistful young boy names James Henry Trotter. After the death of his parents, (they were eaten by a hungry rhinoceros), James is forced to live with his two wicked aunts.
He leads a life of misery and abuse until a strange old man gives him a bag of green, glowing crystals with more power and magic than in all the rest of the world put together.
The visual details will make you feel like you’re looking through a giant ViewMaster.
Certain stories seem tailor-made for certain filmmakers (who else besides Steven Spielberg could have given us E.T.?), and just that sort of match is at work in James and the Giant Peach. The film boasts the same creative team behind 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas, a masterpiece of animation and inventive storytelling. With Tim Burton and Denise DiNovi as producers and Henry Selick directing, both Nightmare and James and the Giant Peach have some of Hollywood’s greatest creative minds at work.
The movie’s use of stop-motion animation perfectly suits Dahl’s tale, giving both the life-size insects James meets within the peach and the wondrous exteriors they explore a fascinating and innovative appeal.
As with the book, you’ll end up choosing which one of James’ insect friends you like best, be it the sophisticated grasshopper (voiced by Simon Callow), the crude Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss) or the alluring spider (Susan Sarandon).
Stop motion has an odd quality of realism that brings these and other characters to life in a way that traditional animation cannot. The film’s visual details – from the Spider’s delicately gloved legs to the furry flesh of the peach – will make you feel like you’re looking through a giant ViewMaster.
And it is truly a remarkable world that we see. Aside from his horrific aunts, James must also face a gigantic mechanical shark, a band of underwater pirate ghosts and the hideous specter of the rhino that devoured his parents. With bravery and ingenuity, James and his friends manage to survive each of these adventures unscathed.
Yet if James and the Giant Peach isn’t quite as accomplished as The Nightmare Before Christmas, it is largely because of the filmmakers’ decision to include live-action as well as animation. By filming the story’s first and last sections this way, Selick is not able to blur the line between imagination and reality as smoothly as Dahl did in his book. Though the live-action scenes do include some nice moments, such as when James creates a miniature hot-air balloon from an empty potato-chip bag, they do not generate the same air of magic that the animation does.
But this is a minor quibble with an otherwise enchanting film. James and the Giant Peach is a wondrous interpretation of Dahl’s book that revives the magical possibilities of film while liberating our own imaginations as well.