Everybody likes peaches. They smell good, taste delicious and sometimes they can transport you all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. In the 1996 movie “James and the Giant Peach,” little James Henry Trotter together with a group of giant bugs travels from the Atlantic Sea Shore, presumably somewhere in Great Britain, to New York City, a place his parents were planning on showing him. However, after his parents are killed by a giant cloudlike rhinoceros coming from the sky, James is put into custody with his two abusive aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who use James as nothing more than a cheap servant. After saving a spider from his aunts, James meets a strange man who offers him a bag full of neon-green, magic ‘crocodile tongues,’ promising, “You’ll never be miserable again.”
But James trips and spills the magic unto an old peach tree, where a giant peach starts to grow within minutes. While his greedy aunts misuse the peach as a way to make money off spectators, James discovers the magic hidden within. The peach is home to an assortment of friendly, human-sized insects: Grasshopper, Centipede, Earthworm, Miss Spider, Ladybug and Glowworm. Like James they are outsiders and dream of an ideal home. Together they decide to travel to New York City where they might fit in.
The movie is based on the 1961 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, directed by Henry Selick and produced by Denise di Novi and Tim Burton. Sticking aesthetically with other movies produced, written or directed by Tim Burton, “James and the Giant Peach” is a quirky tale about a little boy who seeks an alternate reality with a story that at times seems too complex, and almost too dark, for a children’s tale.
In the manner of other Dahl’s children books turned into movies, the film is anything but predictable and realistic. While based on a children’s book, the fantastic story is complex enough to entertain a much older audience equally well, if not better. The story is complemented by various soundtracks, which create the feeling of a musical if not a musical’s levity.
The film’s most obvious cinematic tool is the split between live-action and stop-motion. While the beginning and ending of the movie are live-action, the middle of the movie—starting when James enters the giant peach and ending with the peach crashing upon the Empire State Building—is entirely stop-motion. The live-action portion of the movie is complemented by a carefully constructed coulisse that seems more appropriate for a stage-play than a movie. But this is exactly where the charm of the movie lies: its darkly surreal, fantastic alternative to a grim reality.