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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action edition. James and the Giant Peach

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: James and the Giant Peach

Year: 1996

Source materials: The 1961 book by Roald Dahl

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Budget: $38 million

Box office: $28.9 million (U.S.)

Plot: James Henry Trotter is a young orphan whose parents were devoured by a rhinoceros, forcing him to live with his abusive and domineering aunts, Spiker and Sponge. James dreams of seeing New York City and visiting the Empire State Building, as his parents had wanted to do. One day, after rescuing a spider from his hysterical aunts, James meets a mysterious old man who gives him a bag of magical “crocodile tongues” before disappearing without a trace.

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On his way back inside, James stumbles and drops the crocodile tongues near an old peach tree. A colossal peach grows on the tree, and Spiker and Sponge exploit the peach as a tourist attraction. At night, as James picks up litter, he enters the peach’s interior through a large hole that forms when he takes a chunk from a peach to eat it. Within the pit, he encounters and befriends a group of human-sized anthropomorphic insects: Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Miss Spider, Mr. Earthworm, Mrs. Ladybug, and the Glowworm.

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As they hear the aunts search for James, Centipede cuts the stem connecting the peach to the tree and the peach rolls away to the Atlantic Ocean. Remembering his dream to visit New York City, James and the insects decide to go there. Centipede claims to be an experienced traveler and takes on the duty of steering the peach. Miss Spider’s silk is used to capture and tie a hundred seagulls to the peach stem as the group fends off a giant robotic shark. After the group staves off hunger by drawing sustenance from the peach, Miss Spider reveals to James that she was the spider he saved from Spiker and Sponge.

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The next morning, James and his friends find themselves in the cold Arctic; Centipede has fallen asleep at the helm, and his exploratory credentials are exposed as fraudulent. After Grasshopper determines that a compass is required to escape the frozen wasteland, a remorseful Centipede plunges into the icy water below to retrieve one from one of the many sunken galleons, but is captured and taken prisoner by undead skeletal pirates. James and Miss Spider rescue him with the compass at hand.

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As the group finally arrives at New York City, the peach is attacked by the tempestuous form of the rhino that killed James’s parents. James, though frightened, confronts the rhino and gets his friends to safety before the rhino strikes the peach with lightning; James and the peach fall to the city below, landing on top of the Empire State Building. After he is rescued by firefighters, Spiker and Sponge arrive and attempt to claim James and the peach.

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James tells the crowd of his fantastical adventure and exposes his aunts’ mistreatment. Spiker and Sponge attempt to silence James with stolen fire axes, but are stopped by the insects and arrested by the police. James introduces his friends to the New Yorkers and allows the children to eat up the peach. The peach pit is made into a cottage in Central Park, where James lives happily with the bugs, who form his new family and also find success and fame in the city. James celebrates his ninth birthday with his new family and friends.

Background: Though Roald Dahl refused numerous offers to have a film version of James and the Giant Peach produced during his lifetime, his widow, Liccy, approved an offer to have a live action version produced. Walt Disney Pictures acquired the film rights to the book from the Dahl estate in 1992. The film begins with 20 minutes of normal live-action, but becomes stop-motion animation after James enters the peach, and then live-action when James enters New York City (although the arthropod characters remained in stop-motion). Selick had originally planned James to be a real actor through the entire film, then later considered doing the whole film in stop-motion; but ultimately settled on entirely live-action and entirely stop-motion sequences, to keep lower costs.

Changes from the Source Material: Unlike the novel, James’ aunts are not killed by the rolling peach (though his parents’ deaths occur as in the novel) but follow him to New York.

Songs: The music was written by Randy Newman

  • “My Name Is James”
  • “That’s the Life For Me”
  • “Eating the Peach” (written by Roald Dahl)
  • “Family”

Cast: Director Henry Selick chose Paul Terry out of hundreds of child actors to play the part of James. For his role in the film, which included singing one solo song and two ensembles on the soundtrack, he was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a Voiceover.

Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Sponge and Glowworm. She is known as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter film series. She appeared in Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers, Blackadder, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Little Dorrit, The Age of Innocence, Romeo + Juliet, Babe, and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. She was one of the original cast of the London production of the musical Wicked in 2006, playing Madame Morrible. Joanna Lumley as Aunt Spiker. She won two BAFTA TV Awards for her role as Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous, and was nominated for the 2011 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for the Broadway revival of La Bête. Her other television credits include The New Avengers, Sapphire & Steel, Sensitive Skin, and Jam & Jerusalem. Her film appearances include On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Trail of the Pink Panther, Shirley Valentine, Ella Enchanted, Corpse Bride, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

Pete Postlethwaite as Narrator/the Magic Man. His many film roles include Alien 3, In the Name of the Father, The Usual Suspects, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, The Town, Dragonheart, Romeo + Juliet, Brassed Off, Sharpe, Amistad, The Constant Gardener, Clash of the Titans, and Inception. Simon Callow as Mr. Grasshopper. He appeared in Amadeus, A Room with a View, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Postcards from thd Edge, Howard’s End, Shakespeare in Love, and The Phantom of the Opera

Richard Dreyfuss as Mr. Centipede.1 He is best known for his roles in American Graffiti, Jaws, Stand by Me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, The Goodbye Girl, 2 Tin Men, Stakeout, Always, What About Bob? and Mr. Holland’s Opus. 3 Jane Leeves as Mrs. Ladybug. She is best known for the sitcoms Frasier and Hot in Cleveland. She started on The Benny Hill Show, and appeared as a dancer in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. She appeared on the sitcoms Murphy Brown and Seinfeld. She appeared in films such as Miracle on 34th Street, To Live and Die in L.A., Music of the Heart, and The Event.

Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider. She began her career in the film Joe before appearing in the soap opera A World Apart. She appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles’, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Atlantic City, Thelma & Louise, Lorenzo’s Oil, The Client, Dead Man Walking, 4 Pretty Baby, The Hunger, The Witches of Eastwick, Bull Durham, White Palace, Little Women, Stepmom, Enchanted, The Lovely Bones, Tammy, The Meddler, and A Bad Moms Christmas. David Thewlis as Earthworm. He is best known as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter film series and Sir Patrick Morgan / Ares in Wonder Woman. Other notable film appearances include Dragonhear, Seven Years in Tibet, Kingdom of Heaven, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, War Horse, The Theory of Everything, and Anomalisa. He also portrayed V. M. Varga in the third season of Fargo.

Critical Reception:

  • Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a positive review, praising the animated part, but calling the live-action segments “crude.”
  • Writing in The New York Times, Janet Maslin called the film “a technological marvel, arch and innovative with a daringly offbeat visual conception” and “a strenuously artful film with a macabre edge.”

Legacy: The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, by Randy Newman. It won Best Animated Feature Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

My take: I remember liking this as a kid. It has all the weirdness you expect from a Dahl story, and the stylized stop motion is just the right touch

Available on Disney +?: yes

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