I guess I’ll start this attempt to ‘turn you on’ to Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach with a simple question: do you like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)? Chances are, if you’ve seen it the answer is yes! Now what if I follow that question with: who directed Nightmare Before Christmas? I would venture to guess the majority of you would answer with a resounding “Tim Burton!” You would be incorrect – Henry Selick, the director of the film that I wish to turn you on to, is actually the director of that brilliantly dark children’s flick. With James and the Giant Peach (his second film and follow-up to the aforementioned Nightmare), Selick tackles a novel from one of the most imaginative children’s writers, Roald Dahl, and mixes both live action and the brilliant and meticulous stop motion animation seen in Nightmare. So before I get into the meat of my argument for this fantastical film let us recap: this film is from the director of the cult classic Nightmare Before Christmas (often wrongly attributed to Tim Burton!) AND it’s based on a book written by one of the most beloved and imaginative children’s authors, Roald Dahl (most famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)! WHOA! However, I digress, it’s time to tell you why this particular film is SO great!
Our story opens on James, an unfortunate child recently orphaned. His parents were killed in a freak rhinoceros attack and he was sent to live with his two grotesque and evil aunts, Sponge and Spiker. Unsure if he will ever escape, he runs into a strange man while attempting to save a spider from his nasty aunts. This man offers James an escape from the dregs he is currently stuck in by giving him a bag of magic crocodile tongues. Excited to see what enchanted future lies ahead of him he accidentally trips up the stairs, losing all of his squirmy mysterious tongues as they burrow into the ground. Deflated and upset James is discovered by his gruesome twosome of aunts, but just as he is about to be unjustly punished once again something amazing happens – a peach begins to grow on the barren tree in their yard. All three of them stop dead in their tracks and watch as this amazing peach swells and grows to an enormous size right before their eyes.
Thus begins the fantasy that lies ahead. Little did James know that an adventure of insane proportions is ahead of him, for inside this giant peach are a centipede, a glow worm, a ladybug, an old grasshopper, an earthworm, and the very spider that he had saved minutes before, all growing to human size. The remainder of the film is the story of a boy and his giant bug (and one arachnid) friends trying to make it to New York (the place James’ parents told him they were going just before the rhino took them from him). They hole up in their giant peach and find fun and ingenious ways to utilize their giant fruit for transportation along the way.
So other than the extraordinarily inspired narrative why should you purchase this film and run home to watch it (by yourself, with your significant other, or, maybe especially, with your children)? How about the darkly whimsical visual style and flare that Selick brings to all of his films? If you aren’t familiar with the look of stop motion animation, let me be the first to tell you it is quite possibly the most visually stunning form of animation. The animators create a completely detailed world within which they bring painstakingly designed puppets to life, frame by frame. The result of the hours poured into this medium results in the one of the most eccentric and fanciful visual phenomena. I know the visual nature of film is usually a large part of my argument, but with a film created in this medium it is hard not to rave about the visionary character and set design and the creative and enveloping world that is unrivaled in it’s ability to stun with childlike eccentricity. Taking a step back, the cast of the film is also exquisite. With child non-actor Paul Terry as the lead, Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes (who has double duty voicing the Glow worm) as the cheeky aunts, and the glorious voice cast of the bugs, Jane Leeves, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, David Thewlis, and Susan Sarandon.
So to bring it all back and tie it up into a nice bow of ‘turned you on-ness’ – the story, the look, the cast. I’ve been watching this film since I was 10 years old so maybe I am a little biased but I would have to say that Roald Dahl’s story is incredible, as is his nature. No matter who you are the story is easy to fall into and get caught up in. So crawl into the peach and join in the journey to the unknown. If you know nothing about this movie or the story you are in for a serious treat.
- Edward Hill