Strange fruit

Good jokes, great mandibles, shame about the plot. Adam Mars-Jones on the latest animation dazzler


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

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own