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James and the Giant Peach

(Henry Selick, USA, 1996)


 


As a child, I somehow managed to miss an encounter with the stories of Roald Dahl. Thanks to the movies, I began catching up with their special, hard-edged charm. After Danny DeVito's vigorous and moving rendition of Matilda (1996) came a mostly animated version of James and the Giant Peach by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993).

It is a stirring and magical tale. Like Matilda, James (Paul Terry) is an existential child-hero, alone in the world after being deprived of his parents. James finds a way to escape from his grotesque aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) when magical green worms offer him a giant peach.

Selick's artistry really kicks in once the film switches over to animation. Through a clever procession of plot events, gags and sheer visual poetry, everything – including James and his merry gang of bug companions – lives in a state of constant transformation. The giant peach itself becomes variously a home, a vehicle, a meal and a sun in the sky.

Dahl's story is something of a dark fairy tale, with some marvellous moments of gruesome action realised superbly by Selick and his team. It is also, in its quiet and lyrical way, a subversive ode to the autonomy of children, their identities and desires. One of Randy Newman's sub-Gershwin songs has this little hero simply state: "My name is James, James, James!" – and it is a very moving declaration.

MORE Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

live-action Selick: Monkeybone

© Adrian Martin April 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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