James and the Giant Peach (Henry Selick)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

I'm almost always disappointed by film adaptations of books that I've enjoyed, but since I hadn't actually read Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach in close to twenty years, I didn't entirely trust my feeling that essential elements of the original story had been omitted from Henry Selick's live-action/stop-motion version. So, a few hours after seeing the movie, I sat down in a bookstore and read Dahl's tale again. The reason for my disappointment in the former quickly became clear. Dahl's novel is largely character-driven; there are various adventures, of course, but what makes the book memorable is its vivid dialogue, and the charmingly abrasive personalities of its invertebrate cast. There's plenty of truly terrific material for a dramatic adaptation, all of it studiously and inexplicably ignored by the film's gaggle of writers (three are credited, and the late Dennis Potter reportedly made contributions as well), who chose instead to concentrate on spectacle. And, sure enough, the stop-motion animation is spectacular (though not nearly as impressive as that in Selick's far superior previous feature, The Nightmare Before Christmas); unfortunately, everything else about the film is utterly generic. Each of James' insect friends has been allotted his/her own accent and a single superficial personality trait, and this is the only effort made to define them. All of Dahl's material treating them as insects is gone; in this version, they could just as easily be escapees from a Benetton ad. They fare better than James himself, however, whom I hesitate to proclaim the most boring child protagonist in movie history only because it's a tough call between him and Muppet Treasure Island's soporific Jim Hawkins. If you're a fan of magnificent stop-motion animation, it's probably worth seeing, but be advised that uninspired live-action scenes constitute almost half of the film's brief running time. Be further advised that Randy Newman has contributed songs even lamer than those that occasionally threatened to derail last year's Toy Story. Randy, I love ya, but stay away from cute show tunes, okay? Got another score as haunting as Ragtime's in you?