Until 2009’s Oscar-nominated Coraline, director Henry Selick had problems finding a story worthy of his groundbreaking, immaculately realized stop-motion animation. The storyline was the weakest part of his directorial debut, The Nightmare Before Christmas; 2001’s Monkeybone struggled to find a consistent tone or a proper emotional center. And between the two, he adapted Roald Dahl’s children’s book James And The Giant Peach, gleefully experimenting with form and style, but producing a film that’s more quaint curiosity than anything else. Dahl’s morbid dryness has always been difficult to adapt to the screen, and the directors of efforts like Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (and the remake, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory), The Witches, and even 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox have tended to either inject his colorful fantasy action with lunatic energy, or cover it up with their own styles. With James And The Giant Peach, Selick does some of both, and while the film is beautiful to look at it, it can still be hard to sit through.
In overextended live-action bookends that strongly recall Beetlejuice and other films from Tim Burton (who produced Nightmare and James), wistful moppet Paul Terry plays the titular James, an orphan suffering under the thumb of two witchy, comically abusive aunts, British character actors Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes. Improbable salvation comes in the form of Pete Postlethwaite, who offers Terry a bag of magical crocodile tongues as an escape route, but an accident frees the glowing, wiggling things to work their spell on a peach tree and its insect inhabitants. Soon, Terry is a big-headed animated boy, flying to America aboard an immense peach, alongside a bevy of super-sized creepy-crawlies voiced by Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, and others. The screenwriters expand the story to include an underwater confrontation with ghost pirates, led by a look-alike for Nightmare’s Jack Skellington, and several song-and-dance routines set to drawling Randy Newman tunes (which sometimes adapt Dahl’s own puckish poetry from the book) further pad out the story. But even at 79 minutes, James feels draggy and overextended. The slow sequences aren’t the problem—one of the film’s best moments comes in a subdued, melancholy nighttime conversation between Terry and a giant spider voiced by Susan Sarandon—but much of the film labors under a road-movie slackness, an episodic shapelessness, and a lack of agenda or urgency.
At least there’s plenty to look at among Selick’s beautifully detailed characters, who each have expressive bodies and their own ways of moving. And a surreal mid-film nightmare sequence lets Selick briefly return to the cutout-animation style of his experimental short “Slow Bob In The Lower Dimensions.” Burton fans may enjoy the whimsical, garish design, and parents have every reason to seek this film out for its good-natured cheeriness and Dahl-esque, kid-friendly tinge of nastiness. But it’s easier to enjoy the talent and attention that went into the film than the affable but often dull product that resulted.
Key features: An interactive game and a four-minute production featurette that’s largely just a brash commercial for the film.