Sometimes, it can be really frustrating to have been an early reader. When, for example, you are nineteen and don’t remember how many times you’ve read James and the Giant Peach and they change some details for now reason you can see. A lot of the movie holds up. It’s a technical marvel. And I’m never not going to be annoyed at a couple of the choices Henry Selick made that I don’t think add anything to the story and in fact subtract from it.
Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) had a happy life. Then his parents were killed by a rhinoceros and why not, and he went to live with his aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes), who are the kind of children’s fiction guardians that make you certain there’s no Child Protective Services in their world. One day, when James is given fish heads for dinner and goes outside in sorrow and frustration, he encounters a Mysterious Old Man (Pete Postlethwaite), who gives him a bag of enchanted crocodile tongues. Which James, alas, spills at the foot of an ancient and barren peach tree. It promptly bears a single peach, which grows to an enormous size.
Spiker and Sponge take advantage of the situation the way you’d figure by fencing it off and selling tickets to view it. After dark, they send James out to clean up the garbage left behind by the tourists. He eats a chunk of the peach that has one of the crocodile tongues in it, and he is transformed into stop motion animation as he climbs a tunnel inside the peach. He encounters a group of giant insects. They cut loose the peach, which crushes—but not kills—Spiker and Sponge, and they roll off into the ocean. They’re on their way to New York City.
There’s this whole Thing in this version that James has to confront his fears, which is not a theme from the original book. That’s why Spiker and Sponge are left alive after the peach rolls over them, one assumes, and it’s why the rhinoceros is a running thing in the movie. So James can be brave and stand up to everyone who needs stood up to. And that’s fine, I guess, but it’s not necessary and honestly the scene with the aunts in New York has never worked for me on any level and I’d’ve been happier if they’d just been squashed to death as Roald Dahl intended.
For all that, though, I’m not sure his widow is wrong that he would’ve liked the movie. The undersea quest for a compass in the chilly north is similar enough to the encounters with the cloud men in the book, and of course it allows us to have a Jack Skellington cameo as one of the skeletal undersea pirates. The mechanical shark was a choice, I guess, even though the launching of the peach into the sky is quite different in this version. And the Silkworm is not in this, though she’s honestly barely in the original and is just a second source for the thread they need.
Obviously, there is not as much character development as there is in the book, and James feels a bit wet. In the British sense. He’s not the clever, quick-thinking boy of the book. Several of his ideas are given to other characters, which I guess serves to make those other characters more interesting, but since James is the title character, I’m not sure that’s what we should be doing. And we could sacrifice the Spiker and Sponge stuff at the end instead; that can’t be just me.
Still, I’m glad we got to it, and I’m glad my kids have been introduced to it. I’m hoping my son will become a fan of the book, when I find and loan him my copy of the book. He’ll come at it in the opposite order that I did, and I look forward to finding out what that does to his opinion of the movie.