James & the Giant Peach
directed by Henry Selick
(Disney, 1996)

Anyone with a fear of insects should probably leave James & the Giant Peach on the shelf. So, too, should anyone who has lost their sense of fun or their connection to a child-like fascination for magical possibilities.

The feature, based on the book by Roald Dahl, begins as a live-action movie. James (Paul Terry) is a happy English child with plans to travel with his parents across the sea to America and see the Empire State Building. But then a mysterious rhinoceros appears out of nowhere (in the book, it escaped from the zoo) and "gobbles them up," leaving the orphaned James to live with his spiteful aunts Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley). They work him mercilessly, berate him, beat him and starve him daily until a funny little man (Pete Postlethwaite) appears with a bag of magically prepared crocodile tongues -- which escape and burrow into the soil around an old, dead tree in the yard. Soon, there's a giant, house-sized peach growing on that tree, and James, who finds a mysterious tunnel after tasting the fruit, discovers a cadre of similarly supersized bugs living inside.

The bugs are brought to life via stop-action animation (a la The Nightmare Before Christmas) and the voices of a talented bunch of performers: Simon Callow as the high-cultured grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as the bragging Brooklyn centipede, Jane Leeves as the lady-like ladybug, Miriam Margolyes as the somewhat deaf glowworm, David Thewlis as the timid earthworm, and Susan Sarandon as the sexy French spider. (Who ever would have thought I'd call a spider -- any spider -- sexy?) James, too, is transformed from a live boy to an animated special effect. In fact, the whole world has changed accordingly for the viewers until the final scenes.

Before you know it, the peach is rolling down the hillside, over the aunts' old car (as well as the aunts), through the village, over the cliff and into the ocean, where it drifts aimlessly until James hits upon a scheme to lasso a passing flock of seagulls (using the spider's line as rope and the hapless earthworm as bait) and head across the sea to their El Dorado, New York City. En route they confront an industrial shark, a sunken pirate ship with an angry dead crew (including a familiar character from Nightmare and what looks like a skeletal Donald Duck), and a rhino-shaped thundercloud.

Of course, the big peach arrives in the Big Apple, where things don't go exactly as planned.

James & the Giant Peach does a fantastic job bringing a Roald Dahl classic to the screen. Of course, it's inevitably compared to Nightmare and, in a direct comparison, Nightmare holds the edge -- the original story is great, the songs are superior, the animation is more fluid, colorful and exciting. But don't discount James -- it's a strong follow-up effort from the Tim Burton production team which, while it doesn't exceed its predecessor, it does maintain a high level of excellence and keeps me watching for more in a similar vein.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.