James Henry Trotter is a young boy who lives with his parents by the sea in the United Kingdom. On James' birthday, they plan to go to New York City and visit the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world. However, his parents are killed by a ghostly rhinoceros from the sky, and finds himself living with his two abusive aunts, Spiker and Sponge. He is forced to work all day and they threaten him with beatings and the mysterious rhino if he tries to leave. While rescuing a spider from being squashed by his aunts, James meets a mysterious man with a bag of magic green "crocodile tongues", which he gives to James to make his life better. The soldier warns him not to lose the "tongues" and disappears. When James is returning to the house, he trips and the "tongues" escape into the ground.
One peach is soon found on a withered old tree, and it grows to immense proportions. Spiker and Sponge use the giant peach as an attraction, making lots of money as James watches from the house, not allowed to leave. That night, James is sent to pick up the garbage. While doing so, he grabs a chunk of the peach to eat as one of the "crocodile tongues" jumps into it. A large hole appears inside the peach and James ventures inside and turns into a stop-motion animated character, where he finds and befriends a group of life-size anthropomorphic bugs who also dream of an ideal home (Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Earthworm, Miss Spider, Mrs. Ladybug, and Glowworm). As they hear the aunts search for James, Centipede manages to cut the stem holding the giant peach to the tree and the peach rolls away to the Atlantic Ocean with James and his friends inside it.
Remembering his dream to visit New York City, James and the insects decide to go there. They use Miss Spider's silk to capture and tie a hundred seagulls to the peach stem, while battling against a giant robotic shark. They escape just in time. While flying, James and his friends eventually find themselves hungry and soon realize that "their whole ship is made out of food". After gorging most of the inside of the peach, Miss Spider, while using her web to tuck in James, reveals to him that she was the spider he saved from Spiker and Sponge. James then has a nightmare of him as a caterpillar attacked by Spiker, Sponge, and the rhino. When he wakes up, he and his friends find themselves in The Arctic, lost and cold. Mr. Centipede has fallen asleep while keeping watch, resulting in them further away from their destination than ever. After hearing Mr. Grasshopper wishing they had a compass, Mr. Centipede jumps off the peach into the icy water below and searches a sunken ship. He finds a compass but is taken prisoner by a group of skeletal pirates. James and Miss Spider rescue him and the journey continues.
As the group finally reach New York City, a storm appears. A flash of lightning reveals the rhino approaching towards them. James is terrified but faces his fears and gets his friends to safety before the rhino strikes the peach with lightning; The strings keeping the seagulls attached to the peach are cut and the peach falls to the city, dragging James with it. James coughs up the crocodile tongue as he reawakens, returns to his normal self, and emerges from the peach realizing it has landed right on top of the Empire State Building. As he is rescued by the police and firemen, his aunts arrive and attempt to take back James and the peach. James stands up to his aunts, revealing their abusive behavior towards him. The aunts attempt to kill James until the bugs returned to rescue him, thanks to the remaining seagulls. They tie up Spiker and Sponge with Miss Spider's silk and the police arrest the two. James introduces his friends and allows the children of New York to eat up the peach. The peach stone is made into a house in Central Park, where James lives with the bugs and has all the friends he could wish for. Mr. Centipede runs for New York's mayor and is now James' new father, Mr. Grasshopper becomes a professional violinist and is now James' new grandfather, Earthworm becomes a mascot for a new cream and now is James' new uncle, Mrs. Ladybug becomes a doctor (now delivering her 1000th baby) and is now James' new aunt, Glowworm lights up the Statue of Liberty and is now James' new grandmother, Miss Spider owns a club called "Spider Club" and is now James' new mother, and James celebrates his 8th birthday with his new family. In a post-credits scene, a new arcade game called "Spike the Aunts" is shown, featuring the rhino.
- Grasshopper - Simon Callow
- Centipede - Richard Dreyfuss
- Mrs. Ladybug - Jane Leeves
- Aunt Spiker - Joanna Lumley
- Aunt Sponge / Glowworm - Miriam Margolyes
- Old Man - Pete Postlethwaite
- Miss Spider - Susan Sarandon
- James - Paul Terry
- Earthworm - David Thewlis
- Reporter 2 - J. Stephen Coyle
- James' Father - Steven Culp
- Girl with Telescope - Cirocco Dunlap
- Reporter 1 - Michael Girardin
- Reporter 3 - Tony Haney
- Woman in Bathrobe - Kathryn Howell
- Newsboy - Chae Kirby
- Hard Hat Man - Jeff Moseley
- Cabby - Al Nalbandian
- Innocent Girl - Emily Rosen
- Beat Cop - Mike Starr
- James' Mother - Susan Turner-Cray
- Street Kid - Mario Yedidia
- New York Boy - Brett Alo
- Centipede (singing voice) - Jeff Bennett
- Beat Cop - Larry Blackman
- Milkman - Bob Dini
- Additional Voices - Jamie Donovan
- New York Boy - Trent Lapinski
- Glowworm - Sally Stevens
All songs for the film written and composed by Randy Newman.
- "My Name Is James" - James
- "That's the Life for Me" - Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mrs. Ladybug, Miss Spider, Earthworm, Glowworm
- "That's the Life for Me (Reprise)" - Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mrs. Ladybug, Miss Spider, Earthworm, James
- "Eating the Peach" - Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mrs. Ladybug, Miss Spider, Earthworm, Glowworm, James
- "Family" - Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Mrs. Ladybug, Miss Spider, Earthworm, Glowworm, James
- "Good News" - Randy Newman
Differences from the book
- In the book, the rhinoceros which killed James's parents was a normal rhino that had escaped from the zoo, and it never appears again. In the movie, the rhino is a supernatural creature of clouds, smoke and lightning that seems to be a personification of James's fears, and it haunts his thoughts and dreams throughout the movie until it shows up towards the end for a final confrontation with him.
- Likewise, the mechanical shark from the movie is a group of normal sharks in the book.
- In the book, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge are crushed to death by the peach when it rolls out of the yard. In the movie, they survive this and chase James all the way to New York City, New York (turning up in their half-flattened car, apparently after driving across the ocean floor), but James stands up to them and the bugs tie them up for the NYCPD to arrest them.
- The character of the Silkworm is omitted from the movie.
- In the book, the Grasshopper can play violin music using his legs. But in the film, he actually plays a real violin using two bows (thanks to his extra arms). And when he rubs his legs together, it chirps like a real grasshopper.
- The book also does not mention the dream James had about his aunts and the rhino.
- In the book, the centipede becomes the owner of a shoe factory at the end of the story; in the movie, he runs for mayor. The endings for Miss Spider and Mrs. Ladybug likewise differ from book to movie -- Miss Spider starts a factory that produces nylon ropes for tightrope walkers in the book, while in the movie she opens a saucy nightclub in New York. Mrs. Ladybug marries the head of the New York Fire Department in the book, while in the movie she becomes a highly respected obstetrician.
- The Earthworm is very nice in the movie, in contrast to his nasty personality in the novel.
- In both the book and movie, several songs are sung, though only two of the book's songs make it (in part) to the movie. The first is the self-glorifying song sung by Spiker and Sponge towards the very beginning; they speak rather than sing the first verse of it in the movie. The second one is "Eating the Peach," which in the book was sung by the Centipede alone but in the movie is sung by all the bugs. The rest of the songs in the movie are original to the movie.
- In the book, the Centipede's dive from the peach and into the ocean is an accident. In the movie, he deliberately jumps in order to get a compass from one of the sunken ships after he's steered the peach off-course.
- The sinister Cloud Men (that become more sinister because Mr. Centipede won't stop mocking them) are omitted from the movie. In their place, a group of Skeleton Pirates (who did not appear in the book) appear, led by Jack Skellington (here only called "Skellington") in a pirate outfit.
- In the book, Mrs. Ladybug is motherly to James, but in the movie, Ms. Spider is more motherly, although Mrs. Ladybug is still somewhat motherly.
- The film has James dream of going to New York instead of simply winding up there in the book.
The film begins with normal live-action for the first twenty minutes, but becomes stop-motion animation after James enters the peach, and then live-action when James enters New York City, New York (although the mutated insect characters remained in stop-motion). Selick had originally planned for James to be a real actor through the entire film, then later considered doing the whole film in stop-motion, but ultimately settled on doing entirely live-action and entirely stop-motion sequences due to costs. Unlike in the novel, James' aunts are not killed by the rolling peach (although his parents' deaths takes place as in the novel), and the film also has James dream of going to New York instead of simply winding up there.
Although Dahl turned down more than one offer to make an animated film of James and the Giant Peach during his lifetime, his widow, Liccy Dahl, consented to let this film be made. She said that, "I think Roald would have been delighted with what they did with James." James and the Giant Peach received near-universal acclaim from film critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 93% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 58 reviews. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a positive review, praising the animated part, but calling the live-action segments "crude." Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin called the film "a technological marvel, arch and innovative with a daringly offbeat visual conception" and "a strenuously artful film with a macabre edge."
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Best Original Musical or Comedy Score (by Randy Newman). It won Best Animated Feature Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.
- The film begins with normal live-action, but becomes stop-motion animation after James enters the peach, and then live-action when James enters New York (although the mutated insect characters remained in stop-motion).
- In the pirate ship scene, Mr. Centipede exclaims, "Skellington?" upon spotting a skeleton that looks like Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with a beard and pirate gear. Upon finding a compass moments later, he exclaims, "Jackpot!" Another of the skeletons has the bill, sailor's cap, sailor's jacket and voice of Donald Duck. There also is a regular-looking pirate, a Viking and an Inuit.
- When Grasshopper says "You, sir, are an asp!" to Mr. Centipede, the captions mistake the line as "You, sir, are an ass!". However, when Cartoon Network aired this, they censored the part where Grasshopper says "You, sir, are an asp!", thinking that the word was "ass", and they replaced it with "pedant" to make it more "children-appropriate".
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