Fruits of his labour
After being overshadowed by Tim Burton on The Nightmare Before Christtttas. director Henry Selick has come into his own with a version of James And The Giant Peach. John Alton investigates.
Roald Dahl‘s James And The (iilllll l’ear'h is one of those books that almost every child gets to sooner or later. whether it's before (‘ltar/ie Am! The ('ltm'u/ate Factory and Charlie Am! The (ireat (ilass Elevator. or alter. When I was ten. this was state-of-the-att sttrff. These were children's books that didn‘t talk down to you but had a decidedly conspiratorial tone. which consisted pretty much of a cocktail of mental violence (James‘s parents get eaten right tip in the second paragraph) and deeply weird shit (did anyone ever work out what the Great Glass Elevator's ‘skyhooks' were?)
In other words. it‘s the kind of thing parents and teachers think is harmless and ﬂuffy. but there's a deﬁnite edge to it. and that‘s what younger readers get into. It‘s also what makes it problematic in terms of bringing the books to the movie screen.
The l97l version of Will-v Wmtka Am] The Chocolate l’aetnry is one of the oddest kids' ﬁlms ever made. Charlie excepted. the child characters who win a trip inside mysterious confectioner Wonka's magical factory are such unreconstructed brats they wind up being horribly tortured. while Gene Wilder's characterisation of the title role is properly frightening in its unpredictability. The ﬁlmmakers clearly attempted to sugar the pill with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse‘s icky songs. btrt it‘s a far spikier picture than they‘d make these
days and part of the reason it's taken two and a half decades until another of Dahl‘s children‘s books wound tip on screen in the captivating stop-motion fantasy that is James Am! The Giant Pt’tlt‘ll. Animator Henry Selick was unquestionably the right man for the job. for it was he who came up with the wicked concoction ofskellingtons. ghoulies and ghosties that was Tim Burn»: It Nightmare Before C/ll'l.\‘ltll(l.\‘. Never mind what it says in the title. Burton only came up with the story and character outline: it was Selick and his crew who spent two years in their San Francisco studio painstakingly making the thing in time-honoured. time-consuming fashion. The result was the most sophisticated stop- rnotron movie yet seen. topping even Ray Harryhausen‘s legendary skeleton battle set-piece in
‘We came up with the idea of James as the anti-Plnnochio - the young boy who becomes a puppet and enters a world that’s more colourful and expansive than the rather tlat human world he’s been living in.’
Jason Am! The Argonauts.
With the notion of adapting the book already in mind and a potential deal to be had at Disney — who‘d released Nightmare Before Christmas under their Touchstone banner — Dahl‘s widow Liccy (short for Felicity) came to the production base and gave the crucial go-ahead from the Dahl estate. thus setting in motion a project that proved even more complex than Selick‘s previous undertaking in terms of its special effects work and computer generated imagery to mesh with the hand-manipulated clay ﬁgures.
Although James the movie is framed by stylised live-action that shows child actor Paul Terry suffering the cruelties of wicked aunts Sponge and Spiker (Miriam Margoyles and Joanna Lumley. both truly horrid). it’s the delicious 45-minute animated
James And The Giant Peach: ‘mischievous charm’
centrepiece that dominates the proceedings. After James enigrnatically acquires a bag of magic crocodile tongues. a 30-foot peach sprouts up in the garden. inside which he meets his ﬁrst real friends. even if they are insects.
Susan Sarandon voices the seductive spider. Richard Dreyfuss the punchy centipede. Simon Callow the musical grasshopper and David Thewlis steals the show as a much-harassed earthworm. as they all adventure across the Atlantic to the bright lights of New York. With a cameo guest appearance from Nig/rtiriare hero Jack Skellington and jaunty songs by Randy Newman. the result is bright and colourful enough for smaller children to enjoy. yet still retains something of Dahl's original vision. and the mischievous charm of the animation is worth the price of admission on its own.
For his part. director Selick. who's exactly the kind of half-child. half-bofﬁn ﬁgtrre you imagine spending all his time playing with Plasticene. hopes that a reasonable balance has been achieved. ‘In these days where we have so many stories about child abuse and paedophilia.‘ he says. ‘we had to be careful with the treatment of the horrible aunts and the treatment of Pete Postlethwaite as the old man who pops tip at the bottom of the garden to give James the magic bag. I think that‘s why we‘ve gone for a stylised look in the opening part of the movie. a bit like an opera or a theatre set. but I wouldn‘t have wanted to take all the darkness out of it.
‘In fact. our original plan was to keep James as a live actor and have him interact with the animated characters. but that idea was going to cost way too much and got dropped. so we came up with the idea ofJames as the anti-Pinnochio — the young boy who becomes a puppet and enters a world that’s more colourful and expansive than the rather ﬁat human
. world he's been living in with his aunts. It's a little
like The Wizard 010:. in that respect. and if we come anywhere near measuring up to such classic antecedents then we‘ve really gotten it right in a big way.‘
James And The Giant Peach goes (m general release on Fri 2.
The List 26 Jul-8 Aug I996 23 p