Published on July 31st, 2014 | by Clint Davis
James and the Giant Peach 
Summary: Top-notch family film, even if some of the exchanges aren't exactly kid-friendly. The visuals range from wondrous to frightening, but always intriguing. A bit darker than typical Disney fare but another reason to love the company's '90s renaissance.
PG | 79 min.
Director: Henry Selick
Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, Steve Bloom (based on Roald Dahl’s book)
Starring: Paul Terry, Pete Postlethwaite, Richard Dreyfuss
Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures
Box Office: $28,946,127 (#54 of 1996)
For roughly a decade starting in 1989, Disney pulled off the ultimate Lazarus move. After a brutal period of box office failures, the famed studio was left for dead until an unprecedented period of beloved — and back-to-basics — films made them again the world’s top animation studio, a title they will likely never lose.
Titles like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King paid the bills with enormous box office returns, as well as redeeming Disney’s reputation with heaps of critical praise. A great side effect of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” is that it allowed the company the freedom to make experimental pictures along with the safer fairytales they were spinning on a yearly basis.
James and the Giant Peach is a clear-cut example of a major studio taking a risk and trying something new.
Director Henry Selick, a visual effects whiz, scored a major sleeper hit for Disney with The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. This film is a spiritual successor to that offbeat holiday musical for more reasons than their similar stop-frame animation styles. Producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi were also backing James and the Giant Peach, and the films shared a grittiness that’s not common among Disney movies.
The movie’s plot was lifted from the children’s book by beloved British writer Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda), whose stories tend to have a darker edge than most children’s fare. We begin in live-action, where young James Trotter (Paul Terry) is sent to live with his abusive aunts in rural England, after his parents are tragically killed in a rhinoceros attack…I told you, it’s Dahl. After months of miserably living in isolation while being ordered to do endless chores, James is visited by a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite), who tells him life is about to get interesting. Soon after, a massive peach begins growing behind the aunts’ house, which James eventually crawls inside and meets a friendly group of bugs.
From here, the movie switches to a gorgeous stop-frame animation style that carries until the final scene, when we get a mix of live-action and stop-frame. James and his insect pals travel across the Atlantic Ocean in the peach, with a final destination of New York City in their sights.
In many ways, James and the Giant Peach follows the typical fairytale archetype — our main character is a child being made to suffer unfairly at the hands of cruel adults, he meets a merry band of loyal followers after a bit of magic is used and everything winds up peachy in the end (pun intended). But in some ways, this was such an atypical film for Disney to make in the ’90s.
First off, the story is set in Britain, which Disney had not used as a setting since 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective, and also, the film’s main character was a human boy, something that was never a popular device in the company’s animated pictures. As I mentioned before, the content is a bit edgier than most of Disney’s ’90s output — one scene comes to mind when a debonair grasshopper character (Simon Callow) tells the gruff caterpillar character (Richard Dreyfuss), “You sir, are an ass!,” before kicking him in the face after a provocation. I mean, Timon got mad at Pumbaa when he almost said the word “farted,” in The Lion King.
It’s not immediately clear to whom Disney was marketing this movie. Where The Nightmare before Christmas gained a cult following on home video among teenagers, James and the Giant Peach never took off with a niche audience. It was just kind of there and then one day, it wasn’t. One reason James and the Giant Peach may have failed to live up to its predecessor’s success is that, unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas, it was expected to be a hit. The production budget was inflated from $17 million for Nightmare to a whopping $38 million for James — setting the financial stakes much higher. In the end, James failed to make back its budget, perhaps accounting for the fact that Selick hasn’t worked on a Disney film since.
Other than the late, great Pete Posthlethwaite, the film’s cast includes Susan Sarandon as a sexy, gothic spider and Jane Leeves (TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland) as a sweet, demure ladybug. Its star, Paul Terry, has been a bit nomadic since playing James. According to his IMDb page, he appeared in a British television series called Microsoap until 2000 before apparently retiring from acting at 13 years old. In 2005, he may or may not have played bass in a band called Glassapple — as of this week their website was no longer active — before studying at Cardiff University in Wales. Since then, Terry has allegedly become a math teacher in England.
There was plenty of talent behind James and the Giant Peach, including the two men that wrote its screenplay. Kerry Kirkpatrick has a deep pedigree in animation. His first co-writing credit came from 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under, a sequel that was miles better than the original. He also wrote Chicken Run in 2000, one of the most critically-acclaimed animated pictures not to be produced by Disney. Co-writer Jonathan Roberts had a hand in writing some of Disney’s most beloved pictures, including The Lion King and Monster’s Inc., after having a steady career in television writing.
The writers worked plenty of visual metaphors into the movie, the most obvious being the titular giant peach, which I came to see as a symbol of hope for James’s escape. The piece of fruit started as a normal peach but grew as James reached closer toward it in the first act. The boy’s kinship with a group of lowly insects also showed his heart and the innocence that he never abandoned despite the sudden death of his loving parents.
One way James and the Giant Peach sticks close to Disney’s beaten path is through its musical numbers, Yes, despite its largely grim exterior, this film’s characters do occasionally break out in song and dance. As this movie came out less than a year after Toy Story, it was the second-straight with original songs composed by Randy Newman. While I enjoyed the lighthearted, often silly numbers in James and the Giant Peach, not all of them feel fresh.
One tune called “Family,” sung by the majority of the cast, musically sounds like a blatant copy of Newman’s Oscar-nominated “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from Toy Story. The lyrical content is similar and while the catchy chorus is missing, that bouncy piano line is unmistakably similar. It’s always been impressive that Newman, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member famous for his satirical songwriting, is able to strip out all pretense in the scores he’s composed for family movies. For the songs in James and the Giant Peach, it’s clear he was just having a ball.
In “Eat the Peach,” the film’s best song, the grasshopper is boasting about a great birthday dinner he once had, singing, “Hot noodles made of poodles on a slice of garden hose / and a rather smelly jelly made of armadillo’s toes.” As I said, not an ounce of pretension on Newman’s lyric sheet here.
Selick and his crew busted their asses to give James and the Giant Peach one of the most interesting looks in the entire Disney catalog — even if the surface of the peach does look like the giant ass Sir Mix-a-Lot was standing on in the “Baby Got Back” video. Selick would later direct the Oscar-nominated Coraline and show off his stop-frame chops as a visual effects artist on Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a film in which his scenes were the highlights.
At its essence, this is a movie about being an immigrant and a dreamer. When the crew arrives in New York, they spot the Statue of Liberty and later James looks around at the buildings and says in awe, “These buildings, the lights. The whole city! Someone had to dream it first.”