Filmmaker Henry Selick is one of the best when it comes to stop-motion animation. His films, including The Nightmare before Christmas and Coraline, are often mistaken for the works of the more famous filmmaker Tim Burton. That’s not surprising, as Burton is the producer of many Selick films; The Nightmare before Christmas was even marketed as a Burton film.
Although both directors favor a dark, gothic atmosphere, Selick’s films are uniquely his own, often featuring characters who discover fantasy worlds that reflect the grim reality of their own world. James and the Giant Peach, based on the Roald Dahl children’s novel of the same name, is the second film Selick directed. The 1996 film underperformed at the box office and is often overshadowed by Selick’s other work. This is unfortunate because it features the same artistic genius and compelling themes.
The Story: James is a British child who lives the good life until his parents are devoured by a rhinoceros (yes, you read that right). He goes to live with his abusive aunts, Spiker and Sponge, who make the Dursleys of Harry Potter fame look compassionate and tenderhearted in comparison. After a man gives magical crocodile tongues to James, he drops them and a gargantuan peach grows. While his aunts attempt to use the peach for monetary gain, James discovers the inside of the fruit houses large humanoid bugs who sympathize with James’ plight. After escaping his aunts by rolling the peach down a seaside hill and into the Atlantic Ocean, James and his newfound friends set sail to New York City, a place that James has always dreamed of escaping to.
Why It’s a Good Family Movie: James and the Giant Peach is a fantastic film because it combines all the best elements of filmmaking and classic children’s literature: the absurdity and surrealness of Alice in Wonderland; the adventure that comes with making new friends and traveling to a perceived utopia of The Wizard of Oz; and the theme of a wholesome British orphan oppressed by terrible adults found in Oliver Twist (a trope later used in Harry Potter as well).
Additionally, the film’s artistic style is similar to French films like Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This type of film creates a surreal, grimy and artistically beautiful atmosphere that makes the viewer feel like they’ve just had a dream.
I’d argue that James and The Giant Peach is the most faithful Roald Dahl movie ever created. Dahl was a writer whose strange, offbeat children’s stories featured masterful prose and unrestrained creativity. He was notorious for disliking past film adaptations of his books, and thus Selick worked very hard to please Dahl’s estate. Families will enjoy the wonderfully odd obstacles James and his insect friends must overcome, which often mirror his real-world problems — like a mechanical shark that represents the abuse from James’ aunts.
Additionally, the insects— including a bumbling centipede, an introverted spider and a foppish grasshopper — are tons of fun. Though they all have problems, they are ultimately good influences on James and demonstrate how a diverse group of characters can overcome their differences to form a family. Through his experience with them, James is able to gain confidence and stand up to and overcome his fear of rhinoceri (which represent his parents’ death) and his aunts.
The one minor gripe I’ve always had about the film is its depiction of New York City. The city is portrayed as a utopia, where tons of children laugh and play amongst the streets. It feels almost sterile in its cleanliness, and every adult there is patient and nice. Although I can understand that the filmmakers were trying to use New York City as a symbol of a better future, having lived there for several years, I can confirm that it's not a realistic depiction.
Age Recommendation: The aunts in this film are needlessly cruel and condescending. They talk about beating James, though it is never shown. They are played comedically and over-the-top, though, which makes them a bit less scary. The centipede is a chain smoker. A nightmarish rhino made of thunderclouds, undead murderous pirates and a mechanical shark all might be frightening to really young children. I’d recommend this movie for ages 6 and up.
James and the Giant Peach is streaming on Disney + and is available to rent on iTunes and Amazon.