"James & the Giant Peach"
Opens: April 12, 1996 | Rated: G
Watching "James and the Giant Peach," Disney's and Tim Burton's celluloid incarnation of Roald Dahl's classic children's book, the seven-year-old in me was having a ball.
The animation, by the same team that produced "The Nightmare Before Christmas," is a grand improvement on their already remarkable work. The characters are written mostly as one-note performances, but are funny and lively -- and will make great toys.
But as an adult, "James" seems burdened by a lack of continuity and some unexplained turns of plot. The film gets full credit for style, but loses points for not making sense.
From the first scene, in which a live-action James (British child actor Paul Terry) and his family are having a picnic on a surrealistic English beach, there are questions.
The narrator explains, as a dark cloud moves over the quaint scene, that James' parents were killed by a rhinoceros -- and that's all the explanation we get.
Where were they that a rhino was near enough to attack? What were the circumstances? The movie doesn't bother to answer these questions, even though it would have been simple to follow the book, in which the rhino escaped from the London Zoo.
James is sent to live with his wicked aunts, Spiker and Sponge, played by Joanna Lumley (of "Absolutely Fabulous" fame) and Miriam Margolyes (the voice of Fly in "Babe"). Both of them give the kind of outrageous, enthusiastic performances that one can only get away with in a children's movie.
They verbally rough James up all day long. They wake him at sunrise and make him slave away on chores with no time to play -- and are deliciously cold-hearted about it.
Naturally, James dreams of getting away from Spiker and Sponge, and his opportunity comes in the form of a creepy stranger who gives him a bag of magic crocodile tongues (don't ask -- no explanation here either).
The tongues, planted in the ground, produce one enormous peach on an otherwise dead tree and while poking at it James burrows inside and discovers a world of eccentric talking insects.
When James enters the peach the animation begins, which by itself is almost worth seeing the movie for. A seamless blend of stop-motion and computer animation, it is a wonder to behold.
James' insect companions, voiced largely by celebrities, include a distinguished, tea-sipping grasshopper (Simon Callow, "Four Weddings and a Funeral"), a cigar-chomping Brooklyn centipede (Richard Dreyfuss in a great tough-guy voice), an exotic French spider (Susan Sarandon), a matronly ladybug (Jane Leeves from TV's "Fraiser") and a paranoid earth worm (David Thewlis, "Total Eclipse").
This crew of critters yanks the peach from the tree, rolls away in the super fruit to escape the evil aunts and ends up in the ocean steering for New York, since James has a fantasy about living there.
While on the water the usual personality conflicts arise for the sake of teaching children tolerance, but other adventures come out of nowhere.
They are attacked by a mechanical shark for no explored reason. The beast is a fantastic design, with corkscrew teeth and a spear gun for a tongue, but none of this is explained. If it's a mechanical shark, who is operating it? Why is it attacking James and his crew?
After escaping the shark they harness a flock of seagulls to air lift the peach to the Big Apple (hmm, that probably means something...), but go off course and find themselves at the North Pole amongst a graveyard of pirate ships. There they get a compass that eventually leads them to New York without much more ado.
Many liberties have been taken with "James and the Giant Peach," and Dahl's original story has been severely Disneyized, eliminating the death of the aunts and adding gratuitous, forgettable Randy Newman tunes.
However, producer Tim Burton clearly kept some creative control, and much of Dahl's dark humor remains.
It's no "Toy Story" -- a movie adults enjoy at least as much as kids -- but it's better than a kick in the head, which is what many "children's movies" feel like to anymore.
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