Steven Spielberg wanted it. So did Danny DeVito. But when the family of one of the world’s best-selling children’s book authors, Roald Dahl, finally put his 1961 classic, James and the Giant Peach, on the movie market in the summer of 1992, they picked the director they thought could realize Dahl’s vision — Henry Selick.
The second-place opening of James and the Giant Peach (its first-weekend gross of $7.5 million is nowhere near those of Disney’s other recent cartoons, but stronger than that of most other kids’ films) should do wonders for the reputation of a director used to working in someone else’s long shadow. If Selick isn’t a household name, it may be because he suffered the indignity of being perhaps the only director in history to make a film that had another director’s name in its title. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was sold to audiences on the reputation of the man behind Beetlejuice and Batman. But even though Burton developed the story and characters for Nightmare, he visited San Francisco’s Skellington Productions only five weekends over the two years that Selick and his Skellington crew spent fashioning the puppets, creating the sets, and filming the stop-motion children’s horror fantasy frame by frame.
At least one Nightmare fan — Dahl’s youngest daughter, Lucy, now 30 — took note of Selick’s efforts. Her father, who’d died in 1990 at age 74, had been unhappy with previous adaptations of his books Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches and had held on to the rights to Peach. Lucy suggested to her mother, Felicity, that Selick might be the one director who could realize Dahl’s merrily macabre vision of an English orphan who attempts to escape his wicked aunts and finds a family of creepy-crawly friends inside a magic piece of fruit. ”It was always a question of how you could make it properly as a film,” she explains. ”Obviously, live action wouldn’t work with insects and bugs.”
Although Burton moved on to Warner Bros. after Nightmare was completed, he did persuade Disney to spend a reported $2 million to acquire James for Selick, then best known for his striking animated MTV promos. ”James was the reward to Henry for having successfully directed Nightmare,” says Walt Disney Pictures president David Vogel, ”[while] so much of the credit went to Tim.”
”James is a story Tim would not have done on his own,” says Selick, an angular 44-year-old. ”It’s too sweet and has more emotional range than Nightmare.”
But getting the job was one thing; getting it done entailed a whole other set of nightmares. As James moved toward production, Selick faced no shortage of tension. For one thing, Disney’s animation division was consumed by the studio’s big-ticket foray into computer animation, Toy Story, and its traditionally animated musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For another, management shifts had left James a stepchild with one key supporter: Vogel, who supervises Disney’s live-action family films, and who butted heads with Selick, whom he describes as ”cranky.” Selick doesn’t disagree: ”It’s been a tough relationship,” he says, ”but rewarding. We had some real rough spots. We shut down [while] doing rewrites. We laid off people. But I’ve never heard of great movies coming from Party Atmosphere Productions.”