A largely faithful re-telling of Roald Dahl's classic children's fantasy, this enjoyable film combines live action with stop motion animation to good effect. Directed by Henry Selick, (who débuted with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas), James and the Giant Peach begins with a live action prologue. In a stylised, set-bound world, poor orphan boy James (Paul Terry) is forced to live with his horrid, malicious aunts, the evocatively named Sponge and Spiker (Miriam Margolyes and Joanna Lumley). One day, a weird man (Pete Postlewaite) visits, and gives James some magical 'dragon's teeth'. Accidentally spilling them at the roots of a wizened tree, the boy is amazed to see a peach growing alone on a bare branch. Sponge and Spiker order their nephew to pick the fruit, but before he can do so, it swells to an enormous size. One night, James visits the peach, and eats a handful of its soft flesh. The hole he makes in it suggests a tunnel, and James climbs inside. Once he is within, the film elegantly dissolves into an imaginatively rendered world of stop motion animation. James, now a puppet himself, meets and befriends a group of anthropomorphised insects, who together serve as his surrogate family.
The bugs are a appealing bunch, although some are more successfully presented than others. Most interesting of all the creatures is Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon). Benefiting from a look that is simultaneously cute and creepy, her role in James' 'family' is less obvious, making for a intriguing, mysterious character. Although Miss Spider often mothers James, she also possesses a vampish quality that suggests an innocent eroticism. In an extraordinary scene, James and Miss Spider talk alone. He sits in the centre of her half finished web, while she slowly encircles him, finishing the web that is at once both safety net and snare. The film is a musical, but the songs (by Randy Newman), are bland and uninspiring. Instead of adding to character, or pushing the action forward the lyrics are either odes to the peach, or else simplistic platitudes about the power of love. The set pieces during the peach's voyage are exciting and well handled. Unfortunately, the limited cast of characters, fixed setting, and lack of scenery (other than blue sea below and blue sky above), prevents the animators and set designers from exercising their skills to the extent seen in Nightmare..., which boasted a broad collection of monsters, and necessitated the creation of three separate towns.
The humour is amusing, albeit childish. James... is pitched more resolutely for children (despite a bizarre, Gilliamesque nightmare sequence), and will no doubt satisfy kids everywhere. For older viewers, there is much pleasure to be had from the superb animation. Despite the Americanisation of the ladybird to ladybug, (and the inclusion of a pro-American speech at the climax), the film is far more true to its source material, and to its English setting, than could be expected. The English talent are especially welcome, and make a happy alternative to the Mary Poppins school of dodgy English accents. James' biggest drawback is the long live action prologue. Only when these rather limited sets are left behind, does James and the Giant Peach truly soar.