CAPSULE: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Pete Postlethwaite, Steven Culp, , , Jane Leeves, , Simon Callow

PLOT: A boy rides a giant peach across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
Still from James and the Giant Peach (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a light-hearted fantasy film for children, and fantasy isn’t necessarily weird just because it’s fantastical. Also, the movie tones down some of the darker elements of the original 1961 source novel by the delightfully mean-spirited .

COMMENTS: Orphaned James (Paul Terry, in his only film) is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by his cruel aunts, the angular Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and the portly Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). When a mystery man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a jar of magical crocodile tongues–which are supposed to solve all of James’ problems, although he doesn’t understand why–James loses them in the grass near the roots of a dead tree. The next day, a peach that was in the grass has grown to the size of a house, and the insects inside the fruit—a centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), a Russian spider (Susan Sarandon), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), an earthworm (David Thewlis), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margoyles again)—are now taller than James, who takes off with the bugs inside the now-rolling peach to New York City.

This somewhat obscure Disney production is a masterpiece of beautiful and stunning stop-motion animation, directed by Henry Selick, who helmed the equally dazzling 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief,  did not direct Nightmare, although he did co-produce and co-write the film, as well as design its distinctive look.) This one is not, however, a masterpiece of storytelling. Even at a mere 79 minutes, James and the Giant Peach feels like a rather thin—although marvelous—children’s book stretched out to feature-length. The filmmakers added episodes not in the novel, such as an encounter with ghostly pirates (including one that’s a dead ringer for Nightmare protagonist Jack Skellington) to flesh out the plot.

Also threaded throughout the proceedings are a number of songs by Randy “Short People” Newman, although they sound more like conventional showtunes than the low-key ditties he penned for many Pixar films. The all-star voice cast is not known for their singing, and this film does nothing to change that. Richard Dreyfuss is at his most abrasive as the cigar-chomping centipede (the only American character in the story), but casting the glamorous Jane Leeves  (“Frasier”) as the ladybug—a jolly old British matron—is a nice change of pace. The film’s most memorable performances come courtesy of Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Miriam Margoyles, who are made up to look especially ghoulish in the film’s opening and closing live-action sequences, although their monstrous Aunt characters are spared the dire fates they had in the book. (Aunts Spiker and Sponge seem to be a clear influence on Harry Potter’s horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.) There’s plenty of visual razzmatazz on display here, but ultimately the film is less memorable than either Nightmare or Selick’s superb later effort Coraline.

Since James and the Giant Peach is a relatively little-known film, Disney gives its Blu-ray release short shrift (by their standards) in the extras department. There’s a game, a music video, a “making of” featurette that runs a whopping four-and-a-half minutes, the movie’s trailer, and a gallery of fifty-nine “Behind the Scenes” still photographs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shines with weird, whimsical invention.”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)”

    1. SPOILER-Well, in the book, the aunts were actually killed when the peach rolled over on them. In the film, they survive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *