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Wayback Wednesday: James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Every adaptation of a Roald Dahl book is destined to be weird and mildly traumatizing.

I’m not much of a conspiracy buff. However, I think I may have stumbled upon something too suspiciously coincidental to ignore: All the children who star in movie adaptations of Roald Dahl books seemingly never work in show business again. Don’t believe me? Peter Ostrum, the young star of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) famously never made another movie and I have never seen the young boy from The Witches (1990) in anything else. Similarly, Paul Terry, who plays the titular character in James and the Giant Peach (1996) made only this movie and then starred in a short-lived sitcom called Microsoap (1998 – 2000) before retiring. Am I insane? Am I reading too much into this?  Or is there some sort of curse that comes with being part of a Dahl adaptation? Be warned, child actors who may be considering any future adaptations: You’ll star in a charming, magical movie that will be beloved for generations, but you’ll never work again. 

Credit: / Buena Vista Pictures / Guild Film Distribution

Based on Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, James and the Giant Peach tells the story of James, a lonely little boy who is sent to live with his cruel aunts after the death of his parents. Overworked and unloved, James dreams of escaping to New York City where hopefully he will find friends and a family who love him. When an enormous peach magically grows in his yard, James befriends the anthropomorphic bugs who live inside the fruit and together they set out on a journey to the big city.

I used to watch this movie A LOT when I was a kid. Even then, when I watched it as someone under the age of 10, I was aware of just how weird and kooky this movie was. I haven’t seen it in years and years (I think the last time may have been on my personal VHS copy) and half-expected it to be not quite as odd as I remember. Boy, was I wrong! James and the Giant Peach is totally unique and off-beat which makes a ton of sense because duh, Tim Burton was a producer! I can’t believe I never put  that together before. The tone, the production design, the make-up choices…it all screams of 1990s Burton which is undoubtedly my favourite era of the director. I really like the artistic aesthetic of this movie and how it mixes bright vibrant colours with grim ones. There are certain scenes in James and the Giant Peach that are really beautiful, almost like a pastel drawing come to life. The artistic beauty doesn’t change just how little this movie makes sense though. Look, I’m not mad because I love a movie that’s bizarre. The more so the better! Plus, the catalyst for the adventure is magic candy gifted to James by a shady old man who knows all about him so logic was never a problem when it comes to this movie. 

Wait a minute…an orphan forced to do countless chores, a magical old character who changes their life through magic, an enormous piece of orange food…is most of James and the Giant Peach just “Cinderella” ? The elements are all there! On top of that though, this is a cute little adventure story. I almost wish the movie were longer than 80 minutes because once the adventure begins, I enjoyed sailing across the sea with James and his colourful companions. Sorry James, but the bugs are the true stars of James and the Giant Peach. Not only is the design of each character on-point and wonderful to look at, but each is fun and and charming in their own way. Seeing how each one uses their unique skills to get out of trouble is fun and makes them a lovably excellent gang of rag-tag characters. I’m not a fan of bugs but this group is so fun I’d make an exception to travel with them. All of the A-list actors voicing the bugs give great animated performances, but Richard Dreyfuss and David Thewlis as Mr. Centipede and The Earthworm respectively are particular standouts. They give it their all. 

In real life I’m scared of bugs but surprisingly, what used to scare me the most in James and the Giant Peach is that damn storm rhino. Which I’m pretty sure is supposed to represent a thunderstorm? I don’t know, we never get a real explanation. Oh, and I used to be terrified of Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge! The gruesome make-up used to transform Joanna Lumley and Miriam Gargoyles into these horrible women is spectacular and partly why I was so terrified of them as a kid. Of course, they’re blatantly abusive to James which is also terrifying for a child to watch. I kind of low-key miss when villains in kid’s movies were over-the-top evil. Cartoonishly so. It makes for deliciously wicked performances that we don’t get enough of these days.

I will say, it’s when the movie transitions from live-action to stop-motion that James and the Giant Peach becomes the most enjoyable. It’s been well-documented on this blog about how impressed I am by the art of stop-motion. Look no further than my reviews of other Henry Selick-directed movies such as Coraline (2009) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – here and here – for proof. Selick always delivers works of art with his movies but I found the utilization of stop-motion to be particularly fluid and seamless in James and the Giant Peach. It’s especially amazing in this movie because evidently becoming stop-motion gives you the ability to breathe underwater. Yep, that’s another delightfully unexplained aspect about this bonkers movie. Much like the mechanical shark. Although I will gladly take scenes of unexplained oddities such as those rather than any more of Terry singing. It is atrocious. I would go as far as to call it caterwauling.

James and the Giant Peach is more or less exactly as I remember. It raises more questions than it answers but it’s overall a heartwarming children’s classic. Perhaps a little too heartwarming for my taste. It borders on being precious and that’s never the kind of sickly sweet movie I enjoy. Nor, am I discovering, do I care for the music of Randy Newman, who composed the songs for James and the Giant Peach. They’re kind of hokey and not particularly memorable, sounding more like standards from the 1940s rather than songs from a musical. It’s disappointing. But hey, at least we’ll always have “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

Have you seen James and the Giant Peach? What’s your favourite Roald Dahl adaptation?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!


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