Yarn opens with a brief, live-action prologue in which young James (Paul Terry) lives a carefree life by the British seashore with his loving parents; shot in otherworldly pastels, they lazily
watch clouds that look like locomotives and teakettles, and fantasize about visiting New York City. The dreamy family setup quickly turns to a nightmare when James is orphaned; his parents are devoured by a rampaging rhino. The boy is remanded to the custody of his hideous aunts, the fat, preening Sponge (Miriam Margolyes) and the skinny, pitiless Spiker (Joanna Lumley), who abuse and starve him but fail to kill his essential kindness. He sings the ballad “My Name Is James,” a number that, in its lonely yearning, recalls “Where Is Love?” from “Oliver!”
One day, a mysterious old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a bag of glowing green crocodile tongues, promising that everything will be all right. The boy drops some of them near a long-dead tree and immediately a peach begins growing, eventually to huge proportions. The aunts turn it into a roadside attraction — until one night, when the hungry James crawls inside the peach. The live-action gives over to animation when the boy, himself now transformed into an animated figure, encounters the six bugs who will become his new family, as the peach eventually rolls down to the sea and they set sail for Gotham.
Audiences will have a great time identifying the bug voices: Simon Callow gives the Grasshopper his gentle reserve; ditto Jane Leeves the prim Ladybug, David Thewlis the Earthworm and Margolyes, who doubles as the sweet Glowworm. But the sure-fire keepers are Richard Dreyfuss, as the cigar-chomping, wisecracking Centipede (“We’ll woind up in Joisey!” he gripes when the Peach is blown off-course), and Susan Sarandon as a Spider so Garbolike she even gets to say, at one point, “I prefer to be alone.”
Newman has written a smashing musical comedy number for them, “That’s the Life,” a soft shoe for bugs and boy in which their characters are revealed. Together, they will triumph over horrific mechanical sharks and fearsome undersea pirate skeletons.
Both the score and the film reach their pinnacle in “We’re Family,” a soaring anthem of acceptance and love as the peach sails aloft through space while stars , moons and planets fly by — until Selick pulls the camera back and they are all seen as parts hanging from a giant, cosmic mobile. Here the story’s main theme, of all creatures being part of a single family, and the film’s enchanting surrealism, are of a seamless piece. (Newman is in a very musical-comedy frame of mind; “Family” also recalls “Oliver!” and its rousing theme, “Consider Yourself.”)
Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts and Steve Bloom have fashioned a screenplay that sticks remarkably close to Dahl’s 1961 story. Returning to live action for the final scene, the production team has re-created ’40s New York in both look and feel, as James and his multiply appendaged pals settle into their peach-pit cottage in Central Park.
There’s one last technical accomplishment here, as the human James, along with the city folk and those nasty aunts, interact with the animated creatures. All in all, “James and the Giant Peach” is an extraordinary achievement.