Stop motion animated films have come a long way in the last couple of decades, and it’s worth a revisit when classics of the sub-genre celebrate noteworthy milestones. Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach is one such classic that dominates the spotlight this year, turning the ripe age of 25 years this April.
When it comes to stop motion animation, there are a few legendary directors that stand out among the rest: Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Chris Butler, but none more so iconic than Henry Selick. Selick, most recognised now from his work as writer and director on Coraline, made an incredible debut in stop motion with his direction in the Tim Burton produced The Nightmare Before Christmas. Just when you might’ve thought the man had peaked within the industry, he followed the hit with his acclaimed adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel James and the Giant Peach in 1996.
James Trotter (portrayed by Paul Terry) is a boy from Batman/Harry Potter-like beginnings, although his parents are instead murdered by a cloud of famished rhinoceros. Doomed now to suffer the mistreatments of his sadistic aunts, Spiker and Sponge, the boy longs for an escape to New York City, where his parents once promised a chance at peace and leisure.
Perchance one night, upon being gifted a bag of magical crocodile tongues, James trips and spills his bag upon the roots of a peach tree, resulting in one such peach enlarging to the size of a small building. Afforded a slight chance at happiness, James rolls away in the peach with the help of several anthropomorphic insects in a fantastical journey filled with its fair share of twists and turns.
In classical Disney-animated fashion, this stop motion feature stands out in comparison to later titles of the same category; the animation is fairly fluid and never stationary, resulting in much livelier characters even in times where the plot progresses slower. Characters almost never stop moving. Perhaps as a consequence of more fluid movement, the character design itself is much more simplistic than that of other works in the industry. This may have been due to the costs of creating stop motion at the time, an art form much more scarce than we see today.
Whether it’s unique design, an engaging story, or stellar music a viewer is looking for, this movie does not disappoint. Most of the music came to be written by Randy Newman, who many fans of animation will now recognise as the visionary behind most of the music from the Toy Story and Monsters Inc. franchises.
James and the Giant Peach is a fast-paced film, complete with plenty of youthful humour to entertain the whole family. It even incorporates some more elevated quips to satisfy older fans of Dahl’s work or even those select adults forced into watching the movie with their kids.
Contrary, however, to most works in stop motion, there is a far less ominous feel to James and the Giant Peach. Instead, its light-hearted tone is clearly more catered to children rather than young adults. That much seems obvious from the start but is only compounded continuously through to the end.
Although failing to surpass its budget at the box office, the movie did receive overwhelming success with the critics, even bolstering a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Although multiple works by Roald Dahl had already seen the big screen up to that point, it’s safe to say this film solidified Disney’s continued interest in pursuing further adaptations, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and The BFG.
While the movie may seem a tad short (coming in at about 80 minutes), there is fortunately much more story to be explored in the original novel for those finding themselves wanting more. There’s even a heavily star-studded cast of celebrities on YouTube (inclusive of Taika Waititi, Yo-Yo Ma, the Hemsworth brothers, Mindy Kaling, and more) that’ve elected to narrate the 160 or so pages that make up the celebrated picture book.
Those looking for more of Mr. Selick. meanwhile, will no doubt be salivating at the thought of his upcoming animated feature Wendell and Wild, slated for release later this year on Netflix. It’s his first movie since 2009’s Coraline and is co-written by Key & Peele, so it comes highly anticipated. Although, its release date might be subject to change in the ever-changing times the world is going through, here’s to hoping it drops on the streaming service sooner rather than later.