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There’s a simple reason for the enduring popularity of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. It has the one attribute that children value above all else. I refer, of course, to the fact that it’s really gross. Poor James loses his loving parents in Paragraph 2. And in an awfully nasty way: They are eaten alive by a rhinoceros that has escaped from the London Zoo.
“They were dead and gone,” writes Dahl matter-of-factly, “in 35 seconds flat.”
Sadly, Dahl’s dryly ghoulish tone is largely absent from Henry Selick’s film adaptation of the book. James and the Giant Peach simply isn’t disgusting enough. The movie was co-produced by Tim Burton, and many of the filmmakers were part of the creative team responsible for Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Like Nightmare, Peach is a marvel of state-of-the-art stop-motion animation, but it doesn’t have the same sense of unbridled imaginative whimsy. (Nor is it as creepy: Nightmare’s simple but endlessly malleable story about a well-meaning skeleton who stages his own Christmas with an inadvertent Halloween motif made possible such visual flourishes as stockings stuffed full of bones and eyeballs on the Christmas tree.)
The film tells the story of James Trotter (Paul Terry), a boy sent to live with his odious aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes, respectively), after the untimely death of his parents. (James’ aunts, who both rather resemble Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, are so mean they swat butterflies with a fly-swatter and feed him fish heads for dinner.) The little boy leads a miserable existence (in the book, Dahl tells us that his aunts “beat him for no reason at all,” but we are spared this in the film) until the day a mysterious man appears in the garden and gives him a bag of green, squirmy “crocodile tongues” guaranteed to make wonderful things happen when ingested.
In his eagerness to do just that, James drops the bag at the base of an old peach tree, scattering the magic onto its roots. One of the peaches grows to an immense size, and James finds his way inside, where he meets an assortment of human-scale insects: An aristocratic grasshopper (voiced by Simon Callow), an obnoxious centipede (voiced, appropriately, by Richard Dreyfuss), a motherly ladybug (Jane Leeves), a sultry spider (Susan Sarandon), a timid glowworm (Margolyes), and a self-pitying earthworm (David Thewlis). When all are assembled, the centipede chews through the peach’s stem and it rolls across the countryside and into the ocean, where it is harnessed to a flock of seagulls and hoisted into the air.
Clearly, a story ideally suited to animation. And the filmmakers bring considerable imaginative scope to the task. Peach opens and closes with intentionally stagey live-action sequences, changing to animation when James enters the peach. (As he crawls up a sticky passage to its center, he transforms into the puppet that he remains until film’s end.) The insects themselves don’t look at all like Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s lovely book illustrations; instead, like James himself, they resemble particularly ingenious children’s toys. (Despite the embarrassment of talent on hand, none of the bugs has much personality—only Thewlis’ earthworm distinguishes himself. Unfortunately, the book’s main joy, the endless bickering between the centipede and earthworm, has been mostly excised.)
The film’s busiest sequences are its best. In the most impressive, the seagull-borne peach glides through a starry, planet-filled night sky as James and the insects dance and sing on top. As the camera pulls back, the peach and planets are revealed to be part of a gigantic mobile whirling through space. The peach’s shape is the starting point for all kinds of visual playfulness, starting when it rolls down and around the winding road that encircles the tiered hill on which James and his aunts live. Later, as it rolls across open land, the peach gets a picket fence stuck into it. Protruding from its side in a spiral, the fence becomes a Busby Berkeley–style staircase and stage for the peach’s passengers. A sequence added for the movie, in which the centipede battles a crew of pirate skeletons underwater, is technically awe-inspiring, if rather superfluous.
Screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, and Steve Bloom have given Peach a rather sentimental treatment. In the film, for instance, the giant peach is not allowed to squash Aunts Spiker and Sponge as it does in the book. (“There was a crunch. And then there was silence,” goes the story.) They are spared, and live to reappear at film’s end. The filmmakers also invent a spurious theme about the importance of overcoming one’s childhood fears. Selick’s billowing-cloud rhino is admittedly menacing indeed, but the carnivorous rhino that devoured James’ parents, which has only a peripheral role in the book, here becomes a ponderous symbol of all that James dreads. The peach’s chance landing in New York City also becomes the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for James, who, in the movie, associates the city with his dead parents. And lest anyone miss the point, James joins the bugs for a sappy, Randy Newman–penned musical number called “Family.”
Despite such missteps, it’s hard to knock a movie that includes credits like “spider wrangler” and “lead peach fabricator.”
Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre is as unromantic as his Romeo and Juliet is romantic. This cinematic take on Charlotte Brontë’s grim, brooding novel, though ably adapted by the director and Hugh Whitemore, is strangely unsatisfying, at least in part because of the total absence of sexual chemistry between leads Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt. For Brontë, who suffered many of the same indignities she inflicts on her heroine, Jane Eyre was the ultimate escapist fantasy: Ill-favored by chance and physiognomy, Jane is nonetheless united with the man of her dreams. But the film’s depiction of Jane’s union with her employer makes it seem a penance rather than a reward. Her matrimonial offer to be “your friend, your nurse, your companion,” is not, after all, the most passionate of declarations.
Young Jane (Anna Paquin) is an orphan sent to live with an inexplicably vicious aunt and cousins. (“I endured their unkindness and cruelty,” she says flatly in voice-over.) Soon the girl is sent away to a charity school whose inhumane living conditions and disciplinary procedures are far too bleak to qualify even as Dickensian. In this desolate environment, Jane somehow matures into a capable adult (Gainsbourg) and sets off to earn her living as a governess. She is employed at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with Edward Rochester (Hurt), the perpetually despondent master of the house. Rochester, though, is ostensibly engaged to the glamorous Blanche Ingram (poor Elle MacPherson, who exists in the movies only to make plain but deserving girls feel bad about themselves). To make matters worse, wild laughter and anguished screams float through the house late at night.
In the film, Brontë’s glum tale is allowed to become almost comic. The master of the house is forever inventing reasons to touch his young governess, and “Um, why don’t we shake hands?” is a gambit he uses more than once. Hurt’s Rochester appears to be an intolerable bore (“I once had a heart full of tender feelings,” he intones glumly), while Gainsbourg’s Jane is never half as perky as Paquin’s earlier version. (“Keep well and not die,” is young Jane’s smartass answer when asked how to avoid going to hell.) Grown-up Jane is still a contrarian, but the filmmakers are overfocused on the fact that she is a martyr to plainness. Though it’s nice to see a leading lady with real-life attributes like chapped lips and circles under her eyes for a change, it hardly seems necessary for her to endure the obligatory “look-despairingly-at-plain-self-in-the-mirror” scene (most recently enacted by Jennifer Ehle in Pride and Prejudice). Worse, Hurt, who is American, and Gainsbourg, who is French, handle their English accents with inconsistent results.
Jane Eyre is a story peculiarly suited to its original medium. Perhaps appropriately, reading it is a lot like being in love with someone you don’t know very well; the novelistic absence of exactitude allows readers the imaginative leeway to make the pieces fit for themselves. The film, though, never quite transcends the story’s implausibility.CP