Aboard A Magic Peach

James and the Giant Peach, TAKEN from the 1961 children's book by Roald Dahl, begins on a gauzily idyllic note as the young James (Paul Terry), surrounded by his loving parents, gazes at the clouds on a sunny English seacoast. The good times come to an abrupt end, as a narrator informs us with startling matter-of-factness: "An angry rhinoceros appeared and gobbled up his mother and father." just like that, James's life goes from heaven to bell. As the mistreated and lonely ward of the hideous Aunts Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Sponge (Miriam Margolyes), poor James is driven to befriend a spider--until a mysterious old salt (Pete Postlethwaite) presents him with a magical bag of crocodile tongues that will cause his dreams to come true. When he spills the bag at the roots of a barren peach tree, a giant fruit begins to grow: a peach that he will end up living inside as it flies, borne by seagulls, across the Atlantic to the magical city of his dreams, New York.

Brought to us by the director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Henry Selick, with children's book illustrator Lane Smith serving as conceptual designer, this macabre musical fantasy transforms itself from live action to stop-motion animation once James crawls inside the peach. And it's the better for it, since Selick's touch with human actors is a tad clunky. He's much more at home with the insects who form James's new family--the aristocratic, fiddle-playing Grasshopper (voice of Simon Callow), the vampish Miss Spider (Susan Sarandon), the cocksure, cigar-chomping Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), the pessimistic Earthworm (David Thewlis) or the proper, matronly Ladybug (Jane Leeves). These are delightful, cleverly constructed three-dimensional apparitions, and Selick and his staff adroitly mesh them with some fine computer-generated critters, such as the machinelike shark that threatens to abort the Big Peach's flight to the Big Apple.

We've come to expect technological wizardry from Disney animation, and on this level "James and the Giant Peach" doesn't disappoint. It's easy to admire the painstaking work here--but that's not the same as being swept away by a story well told. The movie's delights come in random fits and starts. Neither as witty as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" nor as transfixing as Nicolas Roeg's wonderful (and neglected) 1990 movie of Dahl's "The Witches," this collection of animated set pieces never works up a full head of emotional steam. The best dreams have an inevitable logic that's missing here. Like that out-of-nowhere guy with his sack of crocodile tongues, the whimsy too often seems arbitrary and overinsistent. Alas, even Randy Newman's songs aren't up to par-they're catchy but lack his usual mordant wit. Dahl himself thought his book would be impossible to translate into film, and for all the ingenuity that's been thrown at the screen, perhaps he was right. This overgrown peach never ripens.