After the late Roald Dahl wrote “James and the Giant Peach” in 1961, he was courted by Hollywood moviemakers hoping to take the beloved children’s tale of a lonely boy and his overgrown fruit to the screen.
Dahl, however, rejected his would-be suitors, saying the strange story simply could not be told except on pages and in children’s imaginations.
“The question was how. How could ‘James’ possibly be made into a movie?” says Dahl’s daughter, Lucy, explaining her father’s position. “Live-action couldn’t work. And traditional animation is not quite special enough for this story.”
Dahl died in 1990 - 29 years after writing “James” and before the question of ‘how’ was answered.
Two years later, his daughter and his widow, Liccy, found an art form they thought properly fit Dahl’s odd book - stop-motion animation of the variety perfected in Tim Burton’s quirky 1993 film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
The result is “James and the Giant Peach,” a part live, part animated movie opening today. The film is produced by Burton, who assembled the same artistic team that made “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
In today’s world of computer animation and digital images, stop-motion is a low-tech anomaly. Animators, working on miniature sets, spend thousands of hours moving puppet characters in tiny increments of motion. The movements are filmed a frame at a time.
The process is so labor-intensive that an entire day’s work produces only a second or two of footage. The 45 minutes of stop-motion animation in “James” took three years to film.
“We’re appreciated as an archaic but respectable craft,” says Pete Kozachik, who directed the animation.
Indeed, before the success of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” stop-motion animators worried that their art form would go the way of the dinosaurs. In fact, it was Steven Spielberg’s decision to use computer graphics in “Jurassic Park” that stirred the most fears of extinction.
“I was dismayed when ‘Jurassic Park’ turned digital,” says Kozachik. “We thought it was the end of the line for us. We called it ‘Black Tuesday.’ But now I think stop-motion is on a long track with people who appreciate it for what it is.”
Finding a story that fits the art form, however, takes time. Henry Selick, director of both “James” and “Nightmare,” says “James” works because insects make up half the cast, and bugs make great puppets.
Like the book, the film follows the story of James, an orphan living with two mean aunts who treat him as their personal slave. James longs for a happier life and begins to find it when a peach in the yard magically grows to 20 feet in diameter.
James tunnels inside the giant fruit and finds a band of human-size insects living in the pit. The bugs treat him kindly, and soon the boy and his new friends embark on a journey from England to America.
Released by Walt Disney Pictures, the film stars 10-year-old British newcomer Paul Terry as James, “Absolutely Fabulous” star Joanna Lumley as Aunt Spiker and British actress Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Sponge.
Giving voice to the animated insects are Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Leeves (Daphne on TV’s “Frasier”), David Thewlis (star of “Naked”) and Simon Callow (the gregarious Gareth in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”).
Oscar nominee Randy Newman wrote five new songs for the film.
“James” is one of two movies based on Dahl books to hit the theaters this year. “Matilda,” starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, premieres this summer.
Two previous movies also have been made from Dahl books - 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which is being re-released later this year, and 1990’s “The Witches.” Dahl also wrote the screenplays for the 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice” and 1968’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
But Dahl hung on to “James,” his first children’s book.
“Father was reluctant,” says Lucy Dahl, a daughter by Dahl’s first wife, Academy Award-winning actress Patricia Neal. “He used to say, ‘No, no. I don’t think so.’ But we thought if the right people came along with the right ideas, we’d try it.”
The film departs from the book in several places. In the book, James’ parents are killed by a runaway rhinoceros while visiting the London Zoo.
In the movie, the rhinoceros gobbles the parents at home and continues to plague James throughout his journeys. Also, the evil aunts are squashed by the peach in the book; in the film, they survive. The writers also included a segment in which James travels to the bottom of the sea, where he meets Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Both Lucy Dahl and director Selick say they were concerned about offending book fans with the altered story, but are convinced the end result is an enjoyable film that stands on its own merits.
“Initially, I was hesitant about (the changes),” says Lucy Dahl, but then Henry explained to me that this is not the twin of ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ It’s the cousin. That made a lot of sense to me. They’re not changes, they’re additions.”
The story’s finale also has been changed.
“My father didn’t like his endings getting changed,” says Lucy Dahl, “But he wouldn’t mind this at all because (the aunts) still meet a nasty ending.”