As Henry Selick’s glorious animated take on James & The Giant Peach reaches 25, a personal response and a look at how films help us in dark times.
For a long time, I dreaded Saturdays. Specifically, I dreaded Saturday mornings, when the quiet serenity of sitting with my siblings in front of the TV as the first streams of sunlight gently warmed our backs was routinely broken by the sound of our parents bellowing at one another.
A day that, for most care-free, slightly gawky nine-year-olds, represents joyous, grass-stained freedom for years became one defined by shouting, sobbing and more shouting.
That’s the thing about divorce: rarely is there a quick fix. And for those caught in the crossfire a particularly unpleasant family separation often yields, it can be hard to accept the cruel truth that a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t exist. Each person, therefore, learns to process their experience differently. For me, it wasn’t so much a newfound hobby or sudden change in character, but the comfort I found in the company of a mismatch band of stop-motion invertebrates and a large, furry fruit.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James & The Giant Peach, much like the composition of its juicy centrepiece, continues to resonate with firm poignancy encased in tender, sweet charm.
Like the underlying subtext found in Dahl’s most revered cautionary tales – the unabashed presence of death in The Witches; the examination of mankind’s innate gluttony in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory – James & The Giant Peach offers a similarly potent blend of escapism and reality. As much as it serves up a stirring tale about a journey to The Big Apple atop a gigantic peach, it’s a story no less attuned to issues of pain, grief, hostility in the home, and, in the form of big bugs wearing inexplicably tailored clothing, the treatment of society’s maligned and marginalised.
In the context of my own experiences with family separation, it’s these ideas – life’s harsh truths working to offset the narrative’s more fantastical elements – that have always lingered longest.
Only now, two decades on, can I begin to comprehend just how important James & The Giant Peach was in helping to make sense of those difficult years. Even for the film’s young hero, who escapes a miserable domestic life to discover one filled with friendship and adventure, the ominous spectre of his despair is never far away. The fearsome rhinoceros, occupying a more prominent, metaphorical space in Selick’s movie, is an amalgamation of James’ pain and suffering: a striking representation of the all-encompassing darkness that consumed his parents and, in turn, any hopes of a happy existence.
The animosity that slowly ensnared my mum and dad during their break-up seemed, to nine-year-old me at least, equally vast and impenetrable. Like James, I was still able to bask in the warm frivolity of childhood: memories of woodland escapades, excessive gorging on pick’n’mix, and intense kerbside Game Boy sessions remain cherished, untarnished ones. And yet, like the rhinoceros lurking in the shadows, those Saturday mornings were never quite out of mind.
But, in more ways than one, James & The Giant Peach is a story about growth. It’s a touching reminder of the value of perspective. Ultimately, by “looking at it another way” – a recurring theme throughout – James is able to defeat the beast by finally seeing it for what it really is: nothing more than a cloud of “smoke and noise” cultivated from his own overwhelming sadness.
In banishing his demons, James demonstrated that pain and fear, however seemingly insurmountable, can eventually be overcome. He showed me that, if you look closely and believe with enough heart, happiness – like the New York City skyline – might just be somewhere on the horizon.
As I sat down to watch the film again recently, I was struck by just how much my interpretation has changed. Just as James grows, just as he learns new ways of seeing, I no longer see a movie about sorrow and despair, but one of courage and dreams.
I no longer see a story about the pain of a family ending, but the celebration of one coming together. I no longer see a reminder of the hardships endured, but of the unbreakable bonds formed from it.
Many years after my siblings and I first sat together, transfixed by a boy, a peach, and his entourage of insect friends, I realise what we were actually witnessing was a story very similar to our own. We too had journeyed across turbulent seas and over dark skies. We too had survived battles with mechanical sharks and skeleton sailors. We too were able to see past the storm to the city lights below.
In the end, we just had to look at things another way.
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