It’s a shame Henry Selick’s name isn’t more well-known. His first two features had the (mis?)fortune of being plastered with Tim Burton’s name, and while it’s possible the marketing move increased awareness for The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, it also irrevocably attached Burton’s name to most mentions of those films, even though he merely has a producer credit.
Henry Selick? Many fans of both films probably have never even heard the name. While Selick finally broke free of Burton and Disney to deliver 2009’s sublime Coraline, the Disney marketing machine rages on, delivering a new Blu-ray edition of James and the Giant Peach that boasts at the top of the cover, “From the creators of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and the acclaimed director of Alice in Wonderland.”
Really, Disney? Two references to Burton? What was his involvement with this film again? Anyway, I digress, but Selick really ought to be more known for his wondrous and nightmarish visions.
James and the Giant Peach is certainly the weakest of Selick’s three stop-motion animated features, but it’s mostly due to the fact that the entire film actually isn’t animated, a fact I hadn’t remembered until I watched the film again for this review.
The Roald Dahl adaptation tells the story of a young boy named James (Paul Terry) who is orphaned when his parents are eaten by a giant rhino and is sent to live with horrible Aunts Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes). They work him to the bone and feed him only scraps, but James’ irrepressible enthusiasm can’t be dampened, and he dreams of escaping to New York City.
After a mysterious stranger (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a bag of crocodile tongues and James accidentally spills them, strange things start to happen. One peach on the peach tree grows to an enormous size, and when James crawls inside to hide from his aunts, he discovers giant talking bugs.
Up until this point, the film suffers a kind of hazy, dated malaise that affects both the jokes and the visuals, but once James enters the peach and the film transitions to a world of stop-motion animation, it’s pure magic in Selick’s hands. The bugs (admirably voiced by Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, and David Thewlis, among others) and James rig the peach to travel to New York, and Selick plunges them into all kinds of rousing adventures — in the air, on the sea, and among the water’s depths.