Big-screen adaptations of Roald Dahl's work have had a long and chequered history. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was disowned by Dahl after director Mel Stuart vetoed his choice of Spike Milligan for the lead. The Witches, directed by Nicolas Roeg (of all people), was picketed by the author just before his death, on the grounds that the ending was changed against his wishes. It's only recently that the Dahl estate has been more willing to allow adaptations of his work, and even then the results are rather uneven. While Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really captured the dark and creepy undertones of the text, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox alienated many audiences by its seeming condescension of the source material.
Nestled in among all these is Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach, a cracking children's film which marries live-action and stop-motion in almost perfect harmony. It came out in the same year as Danny DeVito's Matilda, and it is the better film of the two, being both more disciplined and better directed. It's an interesting and well-executed marriage of two mediums, which draws on the work of producer Burton and successfully brings out the dark themes of its story.
From an effects point of view, the film's marriage of mediums is not as visually impressive as, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There are only a few moments in which the two worlds interact, and these moments do pass you by without a second thought. That last phrase, however, hints at the success of the film in using what we would now consider old-fashioned, organic effects. From the peach rolling through the village to James' transformation into an animated boy, we are constantly distracted from the effects by the story and the characters. Selick deliberately makes very little of James changing, seeing it as just another thing that happens in the story. This makes the madder sequences of the film all the more seamless, and that makes for great story-telling.
That said, the animated sections of the film (which make up the majority) are better directed. Unlike Burton, Selick has not yet managed to transfer his knack for directing marionettes into the world of 'real' actors. But that is not necessarily a criticism. Selick is not a worse director because he struggles to direct real-world sequences, just as the Wallace and Gromit films would not simply work better if they were live-action. Selick merely demonstrates that animation is his forte, as he has subsequently proved on both Monkeybone (which is a mess) and Coraline (which is terrific).
Aside from the visual effects, the film has a striking and weird visual style. Much like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Selick's previous work, there is a lot of Burton lurking in the background. The strange, impossible house in which James and his aunts live could have escaped from Vincent (his first short) or possibly Edward Scissorhands. The scenes in New York are reminiscent of Batman, insofar as there seem to be several time periods co-existing -- we have modern cranes, and yet the cop rings on an old-fashioned phone. Oddly enough, the cinematography does owe a lot to Roeg in its use of deep, rich, almost over-powering colour. The actors' faces in the opening scene are lit so brightly they appear the same colour as the peach, and the film's use of shadows and red light for effect is a faint reminder of Don't Look Now.
Like all of Burton's best work, this film is proof positive that children can not only tolerate darkness, but thrive on it. There are several genuinely dark and disturbing moments, but they never seem out of place or out of kilter with the overall mood of the film. This is a film which contains a rhino which emerges from a thundercloud and emits lighting, a mechanical shark which looks like an anthropomorphic U-boat, and a ship full of ghostly pirates at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. And that's not to mention the macabre nightmare sequence, which is somewhere between the Monty Python cartoons, The Fog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. There are also references to Nightmare during the pirate sequence, both in the look of the bodies (no real surprise) and the Centipede using the word 'Skellington' when he first sees the Captain.
What is really interesting about these examples, and about James as a whole, is that they differentiate from the source without ever making us feel that the film doesn't do the source justice. All the changes are legitimate both in sustaining the plot and bringing out the dark themes; as with Coraline they will not majorly offend purists, because they make sense within the logic of the film. It would have been interesting to see the Cloudmen put on screen, since they are one of the scariest things about the book; but looking at the finished product you wonder how they could have been integrated into the story without damaging the film's internal discipline. In the book Spiker and Sponge are crushed by the peach; here it makes sense for them to survive because they represent a challenge to James' imagination; they are the real world trying and failing to crush his dreams.
The film has a very solid cast, and like all the best animated films you can imagine the animated characters being sculpted to resemble their voice artists. In the live action cast, Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes are great as Spiker and Sponge respectively, resisting the temptation to ham it up and thereby creeping us out in all their macabre make-up. Pete Postlethwaite manages to make the very best of what could have been a throw-away role, turning the Old Man into the main catalyst for James' ambitions. Susan Sarandon and Simon Callow are the highlights of the animated cast, although Richard Dreyfuss is very likeable as the Centipede. As for the lead, Paul Terry gives a decent performance for such a young actor; he struggles with the singing but holds the film together.
James and the Giant Peach retains all of its sparkle and swagger fourteen years after its original release. It's a beautiful told, heartfelt and punchy animation with a bizarre but fascinating visual style; the very sight of the ocean, which looks like a swaying carpet of blue velvet, is enough to take one's breath away. It isn't perfect, due to little quirks in both the lighting and particularly the sound which can sometimes make it difficult to follow. But it is near flawless as a dark and creepy family film, with a great set of musical numbers and a host of likeable characters. If nothing else, all the quality on show here provided the perfect basis for Selick to excel himself with Coraline.