Done badly, Roald Dahl's children's classic James and the Giant Peach could have been the pits. Yet, with Henry Selick's stop-motion puppetry capturing Dahl's eclectic mood and Disney's do-no-wrong production at the helm, the film is instead a succulent family treat that rivals Toy Story in imagination and visual marvel. Although Peach shows just a little more formulaic wear-and-tear than previous Disney efforts, the film is yet another fine entry in their prodigious canon of family entertainment.
The tale begins in dreamy, stylized live-action when, upon the gobbling up of his parents by a mystical Rhinocerous, young James Henry Trotter is sent to live with (read: be enslaved by) his two wicked aunts, Sponge and Spiker (the latter a delightfully evil turn by AbFab's Joanna Lumley). When an enigmatic hobo (Pete Postlethwaite) offers James some magic crocodile tongues to evade this life of drudgery, the puppets take over and Disney's trademark magic begins to sparkle. Soon enough, the magic tongues have created for James a giant escape peach inhabited by a band of friendly insects, including the aristocratic Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the punchy Brooklynite Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), femme fatale Spider (Susan Sarandon), and a cowardly Earthworm (David Thewlis). After finding a way to motor their peach, James and his new friends set off for New York City, the place where dreams come true. As to be expected, the encounter all manner of high adventure along the way, from gruesome metal sharks to underwater pirate ghosts (look for Jack Skeletonhead!)
Only in comparison with the Toy Story series, Disney's other non-classically-animated fable, do any faults in James and the Giant Peach emerge. Like its toy-filled forebear, Peach clocks in at about an hour and a quarter and features several ditties by ex-"Cop Rock" maestro Randy Newman. Also, like Toy Story's playthings, Peach's insects offer a few zingers geared primarily for adult consumption. "My brother was cut in half by the aunts," exclaims Mr. Earthworm, "Now I have two half-brothers." Sometimes during Peach's duller moments, one gets the sickly feeling that Disney may be relying too heavily on conscious formula. Fortunately, however, Peach's dull moments are few and far between, and, for what's it worth, the formula seems to work as well for insects and peaches as it once did for toys. You will believe a peach can fly.
**In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that James and the Giant Peach was one of my favorite books as a child, and seeing it brought to life through stop-motion puppetry was a treat in and of itself.**