Roald Dahl’s engaging stories for young people have been adapted and retold multiple times, but none quite as charming as “James and the Giant Peach.”
The film, directed by Henry Selick, stars former child actor Paul Terry as the titular character with an ensemble cast filling out the other roles. The story centers around James, who lives with his abusive aunts, Spiker and Sponge, after his parents are killed by a storm in the shape of a tempestuous black rhinoceros. His aunts treat him horribly and make him do all of the housework. He meets a magic man who gives him magically-affected crocodile tongues that infect a peach growing near his aunts’ house. The peach grows to gargantuan size and James finds himself inside the peach with a whole range of anthropomorphized insects: Mr. Grasshopper, voiced by Simon Callow, Mr. Centipede, voiced by Richard Dreyfuss, Mrs. Ladybug, voiced by Jane Leeves, Miss Spider, voiced by Susan Sarandon, Mr. Earthworm, voiced by David Thewlis, and Mrs. Glowworm, voiced by Miriam Margoyles. James and the insects of the Peach go through an arduous journey to get James across the Atlantic to New York City, where James had always dreamed about going with his parents.
The film demonstrates how it feels to be a kid quite well. Many things that are actually mundane to a child’s perspective feel impossible or incredibly scary. James and his companions encounter incredibly horrible obstacles, such as a giant mechanical shark that tries to drag them into its mechanical mouth and a whole crew of skeletonized pirates in the icy waters of the Arctic. These are over-the-top and exaggerated because Dahl was originally writing for children. Making these impediments to the group’s progress to New York exaggerated and fantastical seeks to bring the viewer into the world Dahl has created and the filmmakers have brought this idea to life. In the film, there’s also an added reference or connection in each obstacle to James’ aunts, layering a metaphorical element on top of this journey.
The characterization in the dialogue writing and voice acting for the stop-motion sequences (much of the film after James enters the Peach) is absolutely spectacular. Each of the insects are given fully fleshed out personalities and thoughtful designs that make them seem oddly human despite their antennae and extra limbs. The interactions between these characters are also quite well done. You always know how certain characters are going to interact and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film’s reliance on expectations and character tropes is actually an asset. Centipede is reckless and butts heads with the more rational Grasshopper. Ladybug acts motherly towards James, and Spider acts like a friend (mainly because when she was just a normal spider, James saved her from being squashed by Aunts Spiker and Sponge).
Ultimately, “James and the Giant Peace” is a classic that should be revisited if you want a nice, heartwarming tale with a few musical numbers along the way. “James and the Giant Peach” receives an A rating.