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Roald Dahl was one of those writers--Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) another--who seem to have kept a direct line open between adulthood and the childhood id. Dahl's 1961 children's book James and the Giant Peach was about exactly that--a boy who uses a giant peach as an airship.
One of my early childhood dreams, I recall, was of seeing a giant apple falling out of the sky toward my house. My wife says she can remember dreaming of a bad man chasing her with a peach, with the intent of rubbing the abrasive skin on her face. Whatever Freudian gravity fruit has in childhood dream imagery, Dahl was on to it.
No wonder parents have so often found Dahl's works alarming, and why kids so often loved them. Dahl truly wrote for kids--he didn't patronize them, and he didn't bother to mollify their parents by reining his anarchic spirit. If a story came out of his head grisly, grim and uncertain, he let it stay that way: irrational, scary and full of joyous strangeness. If the witch or the old hag wanted to eat the little boy, it wouldn't be revealed at the end of the story that it was a misunderstanding and she was really a nice lady.
Dahl is said to have resisted several offers to make a film out of James, probably because he feared that it would be watered down. Walt Disney Pictures, a studio with a long and ignoble history of watering down fine children's literature, was at last able to obtain the rights from Dahl's daughter after his death and happily turned over the project to Henry Selick, the extraordinary stop-motion animator who brought The Nightmare Before Christmas to such visually dazzling life two years ago.
Thanks to Selick's sense of bizarre lyricism, his James and the Giant Peach is at least halfway worthy of Dahl. Though it's encumbered by some of the usual tiresome, obligatory elements that plague so many movies for children, it isn't watered down.
The first part of the film is live action, though the actors perform on highly stylized, artificial-looking sets. James, a Brit orphan, is sent to live in a small cottage with his two horrible, greedy aunties (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley) who delight in his misery as they make him slave at menial chores and don't give him enough to eat. In Dahl's world, little kids regularly talk to and accept gifts from strangers, so one day a mysterious stranger (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a bag of charmed crocodile tongues.
Somehow all this leads to the growth of the Brobdingnagian peach on a scrubby tree outside the cottage. The aunties seize upon this marvel, turn it into a tourist attraction and forbid James to go near. But he, of course, disobeys them, crawls inside a hole in the peach and undergoes a magical transformation into, well . . . a stop-motion-animation-puppet version of himself. Inside the fruit, he discovers a variety of giant insects who become his pals: a gruff, big-talking centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss); a sweetly maternal ladybug (Jane Leeves); a cultured violinist of a grasshopper (Simon Callow); a femme fatale/spider (Susan Sarandon) with multiple dewy eyes; a gloomy earthworm (David Thewlis); and a hard-of-hearing glowworm (Margolyes again).
All six of these crawlies are in search of bigger and better things, as is James. His father once told him that they'd visit New York City, and since the City That Never Sleeps has something to offer each of the bugs as well, they are persuaded to be James' crew as they transform the peach into an enormous aircraft, using a flock of sea gulls for power. Before long, the Big Peach is bound for the Big Apple.
I know, it sounds nutty, and it is nutty--nuttier than I've suggested here. But it rings authentically with the nonsensical sense of childhood fantasy; as does Selick's exquisite animation of characters designed by Lane Smith (of such children's books as The Stinky-Cheese Man).
Stop-motion animation is the technique of photographing one frame of an articulated model, moving it ever so slightly, then photographing another single frame, moving it again, and so on, to create the illusion of motion when the finished film is run at full speed. Expensive and time-consuming, it was always comparatively rare and, since the advent of computer animation, which can create smoother versions of the same illusions for less money, it has been rendered obsolete as a "realistic" special effect. Yet stop-motion has a whimsical charm which computer animation can't match, so it remains valid as a stylized form, as in The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb or the Quay Brothers films.
This is also, albeit more commercially, how Selick uses it. The Edward Gorey-esque world he creates is a madcap, rickety puppet show; both spooky and delicately beautiful. His bugs are loaded with mythic personality. They're descended from the archetypical creatures about which Aesop wrote. The voice cast contributes to this feel as well--Dreyfuss is especially spirited as the centipede, an arthropod out of Damon Runyon.
James and the Giant Peach isn't a great kids' movie--it doesn't have, for instance, Babe's subtle, subversive purity of soul. Besides, it's marred by two unhappy elements which are related to each other. Randy Newman's obligatory songs are miserably banal, and the dreadful kid who plays James (Paul Terry) sings the worst of them. It takes all of Selick's artistry to rescue the film from the horror of the first number, "My Name Is James," in which he sings in a bloodcurdling Brit-boy soprano about his desire to go to a place "vewy, vewy faw away." If Dahl could have heard this, he'd probably have let the aunties eat the little crud.
James and the Giant Peach:
Directed by Henry Selick; with Paul Terry, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves, Joanna Lumley, Richard Dreyfuss, Miriam Margolyes, Pete Postlethwaite, Susan
Sarandon and David Thewlis.
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