xml:space="preserve">

Quick, now: Who directed "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas?" No, that's neither a trick question nor a grade-school joke along the lines on "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" The answer is not Tim Burton, but Henry Selick, who this year won welcome recognition for being a stop-motion animator master with his inventive, funny, touching adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline."

Just when Selick is on the brink of becoming a name brand of his own, Disney has advertised its welcome new Blu-ray of Selick's "James and the Giant Peach" (1996) with the words, "From the Creators of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and the Acclaimed Director of Alice in Wonderland." Makes you think "Burton" again, doesn't it?

Advertisement

But what counts is that we get a new edition of Selick's wizardly mixture of live action and puppet animation, based on Roald Dahl's first children's book. It's a delightful, sometimes moving romp through a macabre landscape: a child's garden of aversions in which a small boy and six big insects triumph over two fearsome aunts, a shark that shoots mini-shark harpoons, a skeleton army, and a murderous rhino. Selick preserves the unbridled rascality of Dahl's kids'-book prose while imbuing the yarn with a drive and coherence more akin to Dahl's adult short stories. Despite a couple of bumpy detours, the movie overall has the freshness and verve of an imaginative burst -- which is essential, since in Selick's hands (and this is very much a handmade film) it's about the birth of a boy's imagination.

Above you see the Noel Coward-esque grasshopper (with the voice of Simon Callow) and the Dead End Kid centipede (Richard Dreyfuss) flanking James (Paul Terry). Selick characterizes all the creatures with panache. I especially like the way the lower planes of the grasshopper's face hinge like an automated helmet, echoing Callow's pointed deliveries.

This film peaks in a song-and dance extravaganza called "We're Family" (Randy Newman wrote the score). It starts quietly, with the grasshopper fiddling on the giant peach's roof. Then it segues into a rallying-song of alternative-family solidarity and a vision of the universe as a three-ring circus, with multicolored stars and a twirling-top satellite and a rowboat plowing through the stratosphere like Ray Bolger and Jack Haley caught in the twister in "The Wizard of Oz." At final chorus, the skyscape and the peach hang from a mobile that James holds in his hand. A boy who's had his playthings wrested from him has made the cosmos his playpen.

Selick and the puppeteers and the voice actors make this quite a jolly show. The movie is full of gnarly textures and growly sounds and enchanting movements. Rather than trying to smooth out all the jolts and lurches of puppet animation, Selick revels in them -- he lets the audience know they're seeing something physically real yet otherworldly. He practices his sorcery up-front. When Selick pulls off something like the "We're Family" number, he may make you feel unreasonably happy -- the way you do at a birthday party when a child makes a big wish and blows out all the candles.

Have you seen that other delightful Dahl-derived stop-motion animated feature, Wes Anderson' "Fantastic Mr. Fox?"

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement