James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Directed by Henry Selick

Artistic Value: * * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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After his parents are killed by a rhinoceros, James lives in a wretched house on top of a hill by the sea with his two cruel aunts, Sponge and Spiker, until, one day, a strange man gives the boy a bag of magical crocodile tongues. After having dropped the bag, James discovers that a gigantic peach has grown on the desiccated tree by his aunts' house and that it is inhabited by giant, speaking invertebrates, including a centipede, an earthworm, a grasshopper, a lady bug, a spider, and a glowworm. Soon thereafter, the hollow peach rolls down the hill into the sea, and James and the fruit's other denizens escape from the dreary hill and set out for New York City.

Based on Roald Dahl's book, Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach is a lively, bewitching film that is sure to delight the viewer. The director has, in fact, crafted a genuinely enthralling, visually stunning movie filled with a variety of fascinating and amusing beings and constant and exhilarating exploits. Throughout his depictions of James' adventures with his strange companions on the peach, Selick is able to evoke a tangible sense of magic and wonder and, by mingling exciting, dangerous incidents with light-hearted moments of joy, he keeps the viewer happily engaged from the beginning until the end of the film. The moviegoer is, in fact, drawn into a world of intoxicating fantasy and made to feel the delicious happiness born of a rich imagination.

Even the structure of the movie helps in giving it the magical feel of a folktale or legend. Beginning with depictions of James' abject misery as a parentless child, the film goes on to show his marvellous adventures and his triumphant arrival at his new home. The initial scenes of James and the Giant Peach, which are filmed with actors, are appropriately dark and oppressive. James' aunts' house is a dead, grey splotch in a green world. Once James has left their house and entered the peach, however, his wretched, miserable existence is enlivened with fantasy and excitement, and the film becomes rich, vibrant, and colorful. From that point, the director makes use almost exclusively of puppets and sets moved by stop motion animation until the film's final scenes, when actors are again introduced.

Fortunately, the stop motion animation of James and the Giant Peach is charming and extremely well done. The various creatures with whom James travels are rendered in wonderful detail and are all engaging individuals. While they are caricatures, they are beautifully realized and consistently entertaining to watch.

The actors, however, do not all contribute equally to the movie's enjoyableness. Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes give marvelous, exaggerated performances as James' monstrous aunts Spiker and Sponge. Sadly, Paul Terry, who plays James, is a typical Hollywood moppet, and his presence, aggravated by his limited acting skills, is detrimental to the quality of the film. He is entirely too adorable, in both his puppet and human forms, and oozes a saccharine sweetness that renders several parts of the movie unpalatable.

James and the Giant Peach, regrettably, has a number of other weaknesses in addition to Terry. The songs interspersed throughout the movie are not all inspired. Some use as lyrics poems taken from Dahl's book, which are wonderfully clever and funny, but the music to which the words are set is generally insipid. What is more, the film's ending is frankly disappointing. The director seems to have felt the need for greater dramatic resolution than that found in the book, but the effect he has created is forced.

Despite these faults, James and the Giant Peach is a delightful film. Watching it really is an enchanting experience.

Review by Keith Allen

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