This originally was going to be a randomly selected movie from the 90’s as my TBT of this week; as it turns out this also marks my second review of a Roald Dahl-adapted movie. Hooray for coincidences! Ah, this was such a childhood favorite . . . (apologies for the forthcoming gushing, which will be uncontrollable and overwhelming).
Today’s food for thought: James and the Giant Peach.
Release: April 12, 1996
Few films can offer up the prospect of escaping from reality quite like animated films, and especially animated children’s book adaptations. And especially-especially when said adaptations involve the imaginings of Roald Dahl. With Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory being covered last week, it seems only fitting to rave on about a second successful translation of Dahl’s magical adventures to the big screen.
The man tasked with recreating this story of a gigantic peach that a child uses to escape his oppressive home life is also responsible for The Nightmare Before Christmas, Henry Selick. Why shouldn’t this eccentric, at times creepy, yet ultimately heartwarming fantasy endear as well?
James, as we all know, is this little innocent kid but whose been tragically orphaned by a remarkably horrible shopping outing in London, wherein both of his parents got eaten by an escaped rhino from the local zoo. (Lest I forget to mention it at all, I’ll bring it up now. The description of ‘children’s book’ is a relatively loose term when talking about Dahl’s writing; he employs a dark humor and a much bleaker undertone to most of his books than many other authors tend to, for obvious reasons. It easily distinguishes Dahl as one of the more unique authors of the day.) Since being orphaned, James is now forced to live with his downright despicable aunties; two witches who abuse and neglect the boy on a daily basis — Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes).
When a miraculous peach begins to grow on their hardscrabble, cliffside property and winds up becoming a peach the size of their house, the aunts are quick to capitalize by absorbing all the media attention and publicity they could possibly get. Meanwhile, life has become more or less intolerable for James and one night he sneaks out and explores this alien fruit. He discovers he can actually get inside of it. When he does, he finds something he never would have expected: giant insects inhabiting the peach. After getting trapped in a web spun by the huge Spider (Susan Sarandon), its not clear if what James is shocked by is the size of these bugs or the fact that they can all speak English. No matter, he calms down and introduces himself. Soon, they hatch a plan to escape from this wretched cliffside, using the peach as their life raft of sorts.
The ensuing adventure sticks into the young, impressionable viewer’s mind like a picket fence in a giant peach as it tumbles away from the evils of Aunt Spiker and Sponge. Along the way, this fierce band of rather silly, egotistical but generally good-natured bugs, spearheaded by the confident James, run into some obstacles that constitute one of Burton’s most inspired narratives ever. His recreation of this mechanical shark-thing in the ocean is not only exciting but just bizarre. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
James and the Giant Peach is filled with strange encounters that bring out the best and, often just as easily, the worst in each of these odd characters. Highlights on most viewers’ lists just have to include Centipede’s
brave borderline suicidal exploration of a pirate ship sunken in frozen waters; the battle with the cloud-rhino — a weather phenomenon towards the end of their journey that manifests James’ most primal fear; and all throughout the film, between each ridiculous event, the humorous and insightful banter that primarily occurs between the idealistic Grasshopper and the clumsy and more selfish, although still likable, Centipede. The fact that all of this takes place on one gigantic fruit exponentially increases the fun.
Despite the film’s reluctance to stick to the novel’s particulars — this has been an issue for many of the works adapted to the screen for Dahl, personally (he absolutely despised the way Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory turned out) — the movie pretty accurately renders the characters as charming and memorable as they were in the book.
Perfect voice talent helped to ensure that. The bugs, instead of making you want to traditionally smatter them across the screen using your windshield wipers, pop off the screen — each one endowed with vibrant, distinct personalities. Richard Dreyfuss’ Centipede is hands-down the best of the lot here; then there’s the wizened old Grasshopper (Simon Callow) who imparts his knowledge and experiences upon the rest and, again, is the perfect little ego-check for Centipede (these two have a repartee that’s necessarily in the same hilarious company as that of Woody and Buzz, or Timon and Pumbaa). We have also the delicate Ladybug (Jane Leeves) who is cute and harmless (if they made an evil lady bug or even one with ulterior motives, I think I would be upset); and David Thewlis provides a little color in the background with his Earthworm, though he’s admittedly the most forgettable of the crowd.
James and the Giant Peach is a tremendously effective mix of the adventure element with some rather grown-up material. As a miserably abused orphan, James’ story is hardly a happy one, but of course he is destined for a much more pleasant life after he escapes the clutches of his aunts. When the peach makes its iconic entrance into Manhattan after traveling all the way from England, not even the absurdly off chance run-in with them on the streets below can tear James away from his newfound friends and, most importantly, family.
The conclusion is a little too tidy, but there’s no denying the appeal of all that had led up to the peach getting stuck atop the Empire State Building. While not remaining entirely faithful to the details of Dahl’s vision, Selick’s direction is effective, matured and hopefully will be the only associated with the film adaptation. Please, Hollywood, for once let us bathe in the experience of this lone adaptation and do not resort to unneeded remakes. Keep your hands off this peach!
Recommendation: Another solid translation of Roald Dahl’s bleak visions of different childhoods, the film version of a young boy who discovers some magic in a very desperate time which allows him to escape his current circumstances is at once dated, timeless, tragic and uplifting. I’m not sure how many have not seen this movie by now, but if you haven’t, it’s a must-see for Tim Burton fans and especially for fans of adventure films. This is a sterling example of imaginative storytelling.
Running Time: 80 mins.
Quoted: “This is an outrage! You are a disgrace to your Phylum, Order, Class, Genus, and Spe. . . .”
“Say it in English!”
“You, sir. . .are an ASS!”
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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com