Reality, Dream and Animation: James and the Giant Peach

Distressed at previous movie treatments of his books, Roald Dahl refused to allow anyone to film James and the Giant Peach during his lifetime. After his death, however, his widow agreed to sell the film rights, leading to a 1996 Walt Disney/Tim Burton production.

The Disney involvement might have led to a completely animated film. Instead, director Henry Selick chose a mixed live action/stop motion animation format, allowing the film to shift in and out of reality and dream, creating an occasionally surreal, occasionally creepy, occasionally reassuring experience.

Even the film’s initial “live action” scenes have a decidedly dream-like quality to them. The set designers made no attempt to make anything look real, with the result that everything ends up looking remarkably cramped and small, since the actors are evidently standing on very very small soundstages surrounded by greenscreens and matte paintings. The final scenes in New York City fare a bit better—at least they feel larger—but they, too, look unreal, with the result that I ended the film rather wishing that the entire thing had been filmed in stop motion animation.

The switch does, however, allow the film to do one thing: let viewers know the moment the magic affects James directly. It also (mostly) avoids the difficulty of presenting six foot tall talking insects in a realistic world, while letting us know that, in some ways, the world James inhabits before his magical journey is very real indeed.

Oh. The plot. For the most part, the film sticks closely to the book. Young James, living in a time sometime before 1973, has a happy life with his parents until they are killed by a rhinoceros (more on this later.) He then has to live with miserable aunts, until one miraculous day Pete Postelwaithe shows up, as he does, and hands young James a bag of crocodile tongues. James spills the tongues, which end up wiggling towards various insects and the one dying peach tree on the property, transforming all of them into something much larger indeed—particularly one peach, which grows into a giant peach. James crawls into the giant peach, meets the insects, and then is off on a journey to New York City. (In this version, James very much wants to go there and knows that’s where the peach is heading).

For the most part, the film sticks closely to the book. One character—the mostly silent Silkworm—is dropped, without detriment to the plot. Other elements are added, probably to make sure the film could indeed reach a full film length. Some of these feel unnecessary, and I found myself wishing that the filmmakers had chosen to extend the film by lengthening a few scenes from the book instead, particularly the section where James’ horrible aunts sell tickets to see the Giant Peach. It’s brief, and the comedic talents of Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes seem to be crying out for more. On the other hand, that might have meant missing the film’s major action set piece—a visit to some frozen skeleton pirates in the sky, one of the film’s creepiest but well done bits.

Almost certainly to avoid any accusations of bestiality not to mention screams of “HOW GROSS!”, the film also tweaks the Ladybug’s final fate. (Don’t worry, Ladybug fans; the tweak makes perfect sense.) It also offers a visual reason for changing James from a live action boy to a stop motion animated one, that, too, is a small change from the book, and I think an improvement.

Some larger changes, however, cause problems. Young James’ desire to get to New York City—a place he and his parents dreamed of visiting—gives the film an oddly pro-American and nearly anti-British tinge, which I suppose is to be expected in an American-produced film, but still feels a bit odd. The change in some of the insect accents is also a bit disconcerting. In the book, after all, these are British insects, and hearing a vamped out Spider and a New York Centipede somewhat threw me out of the story, even if I suppose Miss Spider could have been reared in a very vampiric family and Centipede could have picked up his accent from listening to the radio. A lot. (Not to mention a distinctly Scottish Earthworm—hello, Remus Lupin!—although that’s a bit easier to fanwank—he’s either from Scotland himself, or from a Scottish family, and in either case has spent far too long beneath the earth to have that original accent distorted by more southern tones).

But the largest problems come from the two major changes to the book. First, the peach does not kill James’ terrible aunts, who inexplicably manage to follow the peach by car all the way to New York City, where they demand the peach and James. It’s all very well acted, but given that the car could barely start in Britain, how on earth did it drive itself across the ocean (and given the water pouring from the car, that is what we are supposed to assume) and how did the two aunts breathe? The usual “magic” response won’t work here—neither the aunts nor the car were affected by magic.

No, the aunts have mostly arrived so that James can have a Great Moment of Self-Realization, which is that no one can make him do anything. He has this realization after facing down the rhino that killed his parents—another major change. And here is where I started to have real problems with the film.

In the original book, the death of James’ parents is treated as a horrible, unpreventable accident. It takes about three sentences and then is completely forgotten about, as the book centers all attention on James. In the movie, the Earthworm helpfully reminds viewers and James that if James can only see the rhino differently, he’ll be able to say that the rhino isn’t real (the film helpfully shows us a rhino made of clouds, heightening its not-realness), and he can make the rhino go away.

James succeeds. It’s a joyful moment, showing that yes, even a child who feels powerless can have power. It’s also a great way of dealing with nightmares and night terrors; you gain power over these by reminding yourself that the nightmares aren’t real, something that it can take kids (er, me) years to learn.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t quite work for me—largely because, earlier in the film, the rhino was powerful enough to kill both of James’ parents. You can say, of course, that they were killed by a real rhino, and the rhino that chases James is just a memory of that rhino—but both of the rhinos look awfully similar and use pretty much the same animation, and the rhino that threatens James and his friends, made of clouds or not, looks as if it can inflict pretty serious damage. And that in turn suggests that James’ parents could have avoided their fate—if they had only looked at the rhino in a different way, as James did, they might not have been killed. And that…is a problem.

It leads to a second problem: the later scene where James refuses to allow his aunts to take him away. At this point, I can think of plenty of reasons why the aunts shouldn’t be allowed to take him away—they’ve arrived in a suspiciously wet and smushed car, they have very little evidence that they are who they say they are (they wave a paper around, but no one looks at it closely), and they act, how can I put this, suspiciously. This is not a realistic movie, admittedly, but this is New York, a cop is standing right there, and the most probable thing to happen next is to have the cop haul all of them in front of the nearest judge, after citing James for landing a peach on the Empire State Building and staining it with fruit juice, not to mention forcing James to pay the charges for the rescue crane. What is not at all probable is that the cop would allow James (and the peach) to head off with the aunts without considerably more investigation—and yet the movie expects us to believe that.

This is, of course, to allow James to have one more triumphant scene, where he tells his aunts that he does not have to go with them—in an echo of his triumph over the rhino. But this leads to more problems. For one, the unfortunate reality is that although kids may learn to master their nightmares, they still, alas, usually must obey parents or guardians for much longer than they usually think necessary—and rarely have much choice in said parents or guardians until they are at least a little older than James. (In Florida the legal age is about twelve, and even then this is limited).

More importantly, James has already triumphed. He’s saved his friends from a robot shark, helped rescue one of them from a frozen skeleton pirate ship, helped figure out how to guide the giant peach to New York City, and, above all, found what he really wanted: family and friends who love him very much and repeatedly tell him so. At least two of them—the Centipede and Miss Spider—are even willing to risk their lives for his. For a child who earlier had no control and only a voiceless spider for a friend, this is quite an accomplishment, and this final triumph over the aunts just feels totally unnecessary.

This is not to say that James and the Giant Peach doesn’t have wonderful, magical moments. It does—especially in a scene where James listens to the Grasshopper playing the violin, or the aforementioned pirate bit. And some of the singing and dancing scenes, if not precisely appreciated by my viewing partner (who otherwise liked the movie more than I did), are also great fun. Those of you who have loved Tim Burton’s other stop motion animated films will probably enjoy this one. I just rather wish the film had focused on some of its own real magic.

Mari Ness admits that if she ever encountered a giant peach, her first instinct would be to put pictures of it up on Twitter, before eating it, instead of riding it on a marvelous adventure through stop motion animation. She lives in central Florida.


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