"James and the Giant Peach," a visual feast of colorful stop-motion animation, offers many bite-size delights. Ultimately, though, it isn't nearly as flavorful as Roald Dahl's deliciously perverse children's book, upon which the movie is based.
In the story, James, who loses both his parents to a rogue rhino (go figure), ends up being a servant to his nasty aunties Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and Spiker (Joanna Lumley, playing a near-parody of her Patsy in "Absolutely Fabulous"). His suffering at their hands is shown in a stylized live-action sequence.
Only when James consumes a tiny magic squiggly thing, like the squiggly thing that makes the aunts' barren tree bear a peach of enormous size, is he transformed into the animation character who meets a group of oversized bugs in the peach pit.
The bugs, of course, have been transformed by magic squiggly things, too. They are a charming, well-dressed crew. Simon Callow plays the erudite Grasshopper with verve; Jane Leeves (of "Frasier") is a motherly Mrs. Ladybug; and Susan Sarandon makes Miss Spider a slinky arachnid (who has high-heeled shoes on each of her eight feet). It's the Centipede (voiced with a Brooklyn accent by Richard Dreyfuss) who sets things in motion, chewing the stem to send the peach thundering downhill to the sea.
this point in the book, James' aunts met a very unpleasant end. But the movie chooses to keep the aunts alive and bring them back later so that James can tell them off in a new-age self-esteem speech. It's a clunky and unnecessary move.
Henry Selick, who also directed the stop-motion movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas," uses the same methods here to )) create a film that isn't quite as lively or intriguing, although it really is wonderful to look at. Besides the brilliant stop-motion animation, which at the end is cleverly combined with live actors, there's a dream sequence that recalls Terry Gilliam's cartoon work with "Monty Python." Still, the rich imagination of Tim Burton, who serves as producer on "James," was much more evident in "Nightmare." This "Peach" doesn't seem quite ripe.
Although the few diversions from the book are mostly unfortunate, one works very well: an underwater battle with pirate skeletons (or, as the Centipede says, "A Skellington!" -- referring to the star of "Nightmare").
One of the biggest disappointments of "James and the Giant Peach" is Randy Newman's music. Newman is a soundtrack deity, if one remembers his haunting songs from "Ragtime" and his thrilling, exultant score to "The Natural," which is still showing up in movie trailers. The songs in "James" never quite fly, even though the peach does.
'James and the Giant Peach'
Directed by Henry Selick Starring Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes Released by Walt Disney Rated G Sun score 1/2
Pub Date: 4/12/96