The past few years have been a little golden age of animation. There have been ambitious experiments (like Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and conventional projects executed with a new sureness of touch, as in the Disney cycle since Beauty and the Beast. Toy Story shows that computer- generated imagery has come of age, while Nick Park - like some obsessed oarsman who trains in his bath and then wins Olympic gold - proved with Wallace and Gromit that you could start with the most basis clay modelling techniques and take on the world.
For stop-motion animation the breakthrough film was The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick, who now offers us James and the Giant Peach. Roald Dahl's story is a great children's favourite. They love to hear their favourite bit over and over again. The challenge facing the three screenwriters - Karey Kirkpatrick, Jonathan Roberts and Steve Bloom - was to produce a script that was more than just one lovely bit after another. They haven't really managed it. They reprieve the hideous Aunts from their death by squashing early on in the story, on the dubious grounds that Dahl was inexperienced when he wrote the book (his first for children) and didn't know better. It seems much more likely that he killed them because he wanted them dead. In any case, the resurrected Aunts (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes) aren't used to provide what the story lacks - a consistent antagonist, something more than random rhinoceroses and sharks. They just pop up inexplicably at the end of the story, gratifyingly hideous with their smudged lipstick and dripping mascara but with no real part to play.
The first screenplay to be based on the book was by Dennis Potter, who was deemed to have veered too far away from the original material. Did he perhaps psychologise Dahl, the way he psychologised Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild? Not a bad idea.
There's a whiff of Carroll about the film, with a child entering a refracted world, not by falling down a rabbit hole but by climbing through a porthole into a magically enlarged fruit. At this point in the film James stops being played by young Paul Terry and becomes a puppet. It's an awkward transition, partly because in the highly stylised live-action sequences, James the little prisoner, singing his heart out in a room whose floorboards were expressionistically slanty, the fireplace all distorted, looked as if he was trapped in a nightmare production of Les Mis. The film undoubtedly takes wing - many wings, since his new companions are insects - inside the peach, with the animation this director does best, but the James puppet is dismayingly inexpressive.
The actor (who continues to provide the character's voice) has his own opinion: "Everybody says that he looks like me but I don't think so."He's not wrong, and the problem is largely in the eyes. Early versions of the puppet with big eyes apparently just looked creepy. But the little buttons the team decided on are no solution. The attention to detail on the whole production is so great, and the modelling of the Grasshopper's mandibles, for instance, so elegant, that James's blankness seems all the stranger. The puppet has no eyelids, so he blinks by making his eyes disappear, like something not very state of the art or even expensive on children's television. Dare I mouth the words Magic Roundabout?
Still, the modelling and characterisation of the insects are pretty wonderful. The animators have risen to the challenge of providing convincing human gestures for additional limbs - 12 arms in the case of the Centipede. After that, animating the Earthworm must have seemed like child's play. The vocal cast (which includes Simon Callow, Richard Dreyfuss, and David Thewlis) provides solid characterisation for the hero's new family.
Family is plainly what they are, even before the assembled invertebrates sing the song Randy Newman has written for them ("We're Family"). You'd think Jane Leeves's stout Lancashire Ladybird would be more bothered by the proximity of Susan Sarandon's sinister Germanic cabaret singer of a Spider, not just because of the clash in style between the mumsy bug and the sultry spider, with her two elbow-length gloves and half-a-dozen kinky boots, but because spiders eat bugs. But after a little awkwardness everyone gets along splendidly. Predators and prey eat peach side by side. Some disconcertingly wholesome messages come through, as if the screenwriters had had Sesame Street on in the background while they worked: your family is whoever loves you. Everybody's different, but we all have things in common. We all need to face up to our fears.
The episodic structure of the film is exaggerated by stylistic and technical differences. The computer-generated sea, a wonderful melting surface like blown velvety fabric, is of a higher order of realism than the peach that floats on it. The mechanical shark, which for no obvious reason attacks the peach and its passengers, firing projectiles like little automatic piranhas, seems to come from a harsher sensibility than the one that devised the charming insects.
Adults unfamiliar with the story may simply be baffled by its waywardness, and the arbitrary way elements drop out or recur. There's a grasshopper candle on James's birthday cake at the beginning. Is that significant? The Aunts' worst torture was to give James fish heads to eat, while the mechanical shark swallows fish and spits their heads out on plates. Are the Aunts related to the shark? What's the function of the rhinoceros (beautifully realised in a liquid black cloud) that trampled James's parents and later attacks him in the sky? These are obviously the wrong questions to be asking, but the film doesn't cast a strong enough spell to make them disappear.
All the same, James and the Giant Peach is far ahead of the season's other animated blockbuster, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in terms of the pleasure if offers to the eye. There are splendid visual jokes, like a dozing rooster, seeing the vast pinky orange fruit rolling towards it, frantically saluting the solar peach. There are moments almost of grandeur, as when the camera pulls back to show the peach floating in space as part of a mobile. But it begins to look as if the marvellous new wave of animation that computers have made possible will run out of stories before it runs out of anything else - stories strong enough to hold the attention for 90-odd minutes. We may just have to get used to these technological marvels, with their dazzling coachwork and their sophisticated instrumentation - and not quite enough petrol in the tank.
n On general release from Friday