As I’ve written before, it can be really, really hard to get children’s films right. If all the pieces aren’t there, adults (and kids too) will immediately spot a cash grab and recoil.
I had some fine memories of “James and the Giant Peach,” (and I’ve always loved Roald Dahl books) the 1996 adaptation from director Henry Selick, but it’s been quite a while since I last watched it, so I decided to check it out from an adult perspective. Unfortunately, the film has the ingredients for magic, but it just doesn’t deliver.
James (Paul Terry, acting and voice) is one miserable little boy. He had two loving and doting parents, but when a rhinoceros eats them up, he’s sent to live with his aunts, Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley), who terrorize, beat and abuse our pint-sized hero.
But he receives a bag of magic worms (and then promptly trips and loses them), and out of the blue a giant peach begins to grow in their yard. One night, he manages to find one last worm, and he’s suddenly small, 3D, and on an adventure with overgrown bugs inside the giant peach.
Solid setup, but really if you’re going to make a movie as ridiculous and over-the-top as this one (seriously, Spike and Sponge look like corpses), you might as well go the distance and make the whole thing a cartoon; trust me, it will be more believable (and probably more fun to watch).
Part of the problem is that the audience is never really given a chance to connect with the heroes; sure, we feel bad for James, and we detest his aunts, but there are six other characters that barely have names and have no personality beyond one trait (be it funny, or proper, or kind, or shy). A 79 minute film doesn’t have the time or space to dawdle, but some more character moments would have helped a lot.
The other major problem here is the ending. Without giving too much away, once James’ journey is mostly over, we switch back to live-action, and any semblance of good will is leached out of us by an unbelievable (and trite) sequence of events. One paragraph above, I was arguing for a longer movie, but after I watched the end, I was praying the last 10 minutes could just disappear from my mind forever.
Watching this uninspired and soulless outing, I couldn’t help but be reminded of better attempts at kiddie movie-making; like “Up,” with its glorious (and breathtaking) balloon flight; like “Chicken Run,” with its fully realized characters and awesome action sequences; and like the “Toy Story” films (any of them), which combine laughs and tears in equal measures.
“James and the Giant Peach” should have been something special; instead it’s just another poorly executed kiddie flick. Skip it and watch something more worthy of your time.
“James and the Giant Peach” (1996)
Directed by Henry Selick
Written by Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts and Steve Bloom
Starring: Paul Terry (James)
Sponge (Miriam Margolyes)
Spiker (Joanna Lumley)