TURNING A CLASSIC OF CHILDREN'S literature into a movie can be a thankless task. It's drudge work for the adapters if they are totally faithful to the text. Yet to make any changes can be deemed a sacrilege. To kids, a fairy tale is as sacred as the Pentateuch; it instructs them in the perils and wonders of the world they are just getting used to. Even as adults, they may retain what they believe to be a moral copyright on their memory of favorite stories. Don't dig up my Secret Garden, they protest. Don't abuse my Seuss.
So we fully anticipate the wrath of several generations of possessive children when we declare that the new Disney film of James and the Giant Peach is an improvement on Roald Dahl's 1961 backyard fantasy. Director Henry Selick and his team of screenwriters (Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts, Steve Bloom) and technical specialists have given the story balance and emotional heft. Mixing stylized live action with stop-motion animation, they have reconciled the tale's realistic and surreal elements and, in five sprightly Randy Newman tunes, made the story sing.
For the rest of you, a little plot summary. James is an orphan boy in the care of two sadistic maiden aunts, Sponge and Spiker. Through some green magic, a garden peach grows to geospheric dimensions. James crawls inside through a pulpy canal, meets some eccentric insects (Old-Green-Grasshopper, Centipede, Ladybug, Miss Spider, Glowworm, Earthworm) and floats across the sea on an adventure that grafts Jules Verne onto Lewis Carroll.
On page 1 of the book, Dahl kills off James' parents--they are devoured by a rhinoceros--and, soon after, the wicked Sponge and Spiker. The story then lurches picaresquely amid near catastrophes. Selick gives this all a bit more focus by making sure the early events, including the rhinoceros, resonate throughout the film. He also gives James (winningly played by Paul Terry) a mission: to find his dream city, a Deco-delicious Manhattan. Spider (voiced by Susan Sarandon) here has the melancholy hauteur of a Garbo femme fatale; and the Centipede, obnoxious in the book, is now a Leo Gorcey type (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), who gets a shot at redemption by fighting a shipful of skeleton pirates straight out of Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Harryhausen was a master of stop-motion, the laborious, handmade form of animation that lives today in the work of Oscar winner Nick Park (A Close Shave) and Selick, whose previous feature was Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. This is a jauntier piece--more Disneyfied, perhaps, but still apt to leave a haunting impression on the children who see it. And when they finally read the Dahl book, they may be annoyed. Why, they will wonder, couldn't it be more like this movie?
--By Richard Corliss