‘James and the Giant Peach’ (Film)


Please feel free to comment on my review.

Giant Peach, Enormous Bugs and James Henry Trotter

‘Marvellous things will happen!’

We all have our favourite children’s author, don’t we? My favourite children’s author has to be Roald Dahl. He wrote timeless classics for kids in the 20th century. They include ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ‘Matilda’ and ‘The BFG’. I read and was read these books when I was very young.

Roald Dahl, whether you like him or not, captured children’s imagination with his storytelling especially about kids opposing the oppressive nature of grown-ups. This has translated into the film adaptations of Roald Dahl’s work. One of these movie adaptations was ‘James and the Giant Peach’.

This 1996 film, based on the original book published in 1961, was directed by Henry Selick and was produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi. Henry Selick had directed ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ beforehand, which was also produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi. A trend here! 😀

I recall seeing this film at a young age when reading the book at school. We were shown to it in class I think and my parents purchased the VHS of the film for me at the time I was finishing primary school. I later purchased ‘James and the Giant Peach’ on DVD when we were in London during 2001.

‘James and the Giant Peach’ is a film I hold cherished memories of, even as a kid. Although it’s not one I would call a standout favourite especially as a film adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s works. It has an intriguing blend of stop-motion animation by Henry Selick and his team as well as live-action.

But as film adaptations go, this one does have some creative differences and deviations from the original source material. It’s not exactly a faithful adaptation of the original book. Don’t me wrong, I enjoyed the film very much. But I noticed certain things in the film that weren’t in the original book.

Even as a kid, I recall reading the book differently to how I saw the movie. The film does have a light-hearted as well as a dark tone that mixes and matches on varying levels. This could have something to do with the eerie artistic style Tim Burton contributed to this film as Henry Selick was directing it.

The film is about a young boy named James Henry Trotter, who becomes an orphan after his parents gets gobbled up by an angry rhinoceros. Yeah, I’ll get back to that bit. James has to go and live with his horrible aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who treat him like dirt as they force him to ‘work, work, work’.

But after James meets a strange old man who gives him a bag full of one thousand crocodile tongues, a peach on the branch of a tree grows giant-sized. James soon climbs into this giant peach, becomes stop-motion animated, and he meets some very unusual friends that are ‘enormous bugs’.

Very soon, James and his bug friends escape in the giant peach from Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponger and they go off on a series of wildly imaginative adventures. Their destination is the city of New York. Can James and his bug friends survive these dangers of their adventures and get to reach New York.

So yeah, the rhino business. It is pretty sudden when James’ parents get killed instantly after treating him to a birthday cake and promising him a trip to New York. It’s also odd when you consider the nature of the monstrous beast since the rhino’s made out of ‘smoke and noise’ as James describes it.

For one thing, where did this rhino come from? Why is it made out of ‘smoke and noise’? Is it some supernatural thing that never gets explained? According to the book, it’s very different as the rhino escaped from the London Zoo and he ate up James’ parents in full daylight and on a crowded street.

I don’t know why director Henry Selick would go with this approach of having a supernatural rhino from the clouds eating up James’ parents at the beginning. Also, aren’t rhinos supposed to be vegetarians? Then why would the rhino in the book and film eat James’ parents if it…oh never mind.

I know this is a children’s film and I shouldn’t question it too much in the grand scheme of things. But it is bizarre why a creative choice would be made like that when it’s not in the original book. Another thing that is not in the original book is the inclusion of a giant machine-like shark in the sea.

Yeah, that happens. I’m pretty sure that’s not in the original book. Why would they have an evil shark that came from ‘Transformers’ or something? Where did it come from? Was it an abandoned government project or something that went rogue? It is never explained, as we progress in the film.

But anyway, the film features Paul Terry as James. I think Paul Terry delivers a decent performance as James, even in animated form. Yeah that moment when he becomes a stop-motion animation figure is bizarre even though it was a crocodile tongue that made it happen. But I can deal with this.

Joanna Lumley stars as Aunt Spiker, one of James’ evil aunts in the movie. I’ve seen Joanna Lumley in a number of things lately including the ‘Doctor Who’ Comic Relief Special called ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’. She does look pretty witch-like and scary-looking when she and Sponge treat James badly in the film.

Miriam Margolyes stars as Aunt Sponge, who’s just as mean as Aunt Spiker is to James. I’ve seen Miriam Margolyes in a number of drama-related productions including the 1985 BBC production of ‘Oliver Twist’. Compared to Aunt Spiker, she is ’rounder’ and has this hag-like appearance in the film.

Pete Postlethwaite is the narrator of the film as well as the strange old man who gives James the bag of green crocodile tongues. Peter Postlethwaite has also been in the 1994 BBC production of ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. If you wonder how this magic man knows James in the first place, wait until the very end.

One thing I’ve noticed about this film is that it has a 1950s feel to it as opposed to a contemporary feel as many things would do. I’m not sure why director Henry Selick went with this approach. Perhaps it’s because Roald Dahl wrote this book in the 1950s. But it’s pretty interesting nonetheless.

Inside the peach, James meets the giant bugs. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the peach is bigger on the inside. Perhaps it’s a TARDIS. 😀 I know that it’s a giant peach and all, but at the film’s end the peach is eaten up by New Yorkers down to the pit. And the pit becomes a house within Central Park.

So surely the pit must be bigger on the inside making it a TARDIS. I’m making note of this since the giant bugs manage to live inside the pit with plenty of room to crawl/walk about freely. I know this is a minor point and that it shouldn’t be examined a lot since it is a kid’s film. But it makes you wonder.

But yeah, the giant bugs. An interesting decision made by director Henry Selick is the combination of live action and stop-motion animation. The stop-motion animation is used for the giant bug characters. I’m not sure why this approach was used, but I suppose CGI wasn’t prominent in movies back then.

Sometimes the blend of stop-motion animation and live action works for me. It is rather well-done and the bug-like characters do look intriguing to look at. I’m still unsure why James was animated with the bugs. But I suppose mixing a live-action human with stop-motion animation would be tricky.

The bug characters are voiced by various actors. There’s Mr. Grasshopper voiced by Simon Callow. Wait a minute! Simon Callow! He played Charles Dickens in the ‘Doctor Who’ episode, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ years later. Mr. Grasshopper is like a polite English gentleman. He also loves to play the violin.

There’s Mr. Centipede, voiced by Richard Dreyfuss. Mr. Centipede is a cocky character with a Brooklyn accent. Hmm, intriguing that a Brooklyn accented centipede should be living inside a giant peach on a presumably British island, isn’t it? Mr. Centipede’s singing voice is given by Jeff Bennett.

There’s Mrs. Ladybug (Ladybird as it was in the book), voiced by Jane Leeves. Mrs. Ladybug is a motherly character who gets to dot on James. She even has a handbag and wears a hat on her head. There’s this background of Mrs. Ladybug losing her children and she gets to smack some sharks too.

There’s Miss Spider, voiced by Susan Sarandon. Miss Spider seems to take kindly and be friendly to James. I like how that connection is made between James and Miss Spider, especially since he was friendly to her when she was a small spider. She has an antagonistic relationship with Mr. Centipede.

There’s Mr. Earthworm, voiced by David Thewlis, who would later go on to play Ares in the 2017 film, ‘Wonder Woman’. Hold up, what?! But anyway, the Earthworm is as blind as bat and is easily scared on the adventures he and his friends have. But James helps the Earthworm to be brave here.

And there’s the Glowworm, voiced by Miriam Margolyes, who also plays Aunt Sponge in the film. The Glowworm doesn’t have a major part to play in the film as she simply provides the lights inside the peach and is a little deaf. She has her moment when she comes up and sings with everyone else.

Speaking of singing, the music and songs are provided by composer Randy Newman. Yes, that’s right! Randy Newman also provided the music and songs for the ‘Toy Story’ films. I often thought Woody was singing in this. 😀 Randy Newman provides original songs including ‘Good News’ at the movie’s end.

The DVD special features are as follows. There’s an original theatrical trailer; a production featurette and a ‘Good News’ music video by Randy Newman. There have been Special Editions DVDs made of ‘James and the Giant Peach’, but they’re nothing special and just retain those same special features.

‘James and the Giant Peach’ is a film adaptation that doesn’t always remain true to the original Roald Dahl book. It has creative choices that are often bizarre at times and the mixture of live action and stop motion animation can vary at times. But I still hold a fondness watching this children’s film.

Whilst it may not be a favourite of mine and it has its mixture of dark tones and light-hearted humour, I like how the film does have this optimistic message all the way through. This is especially when James defies her evil aunts at the end and where he and his bug friends live happily ever after.

By the way, what is it with James’ aunts journeying all the way from their presumably British island and through the sea to reach New York City where James is? How could they have survived all that way through? Why didn’t they take a boat? Surely they would’ve had some money for it? Argh!!! 😀

‘James and the Giant Peach’ rating – 7/10

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