James Henry Trotter is a young boy who lives with his parents by the sea in England. 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 James finds himself living with his two ignorant and cruel aunts, Spiker and Sponge.
He is forced to work all day and they antagonize him by threatening him with beatings to keep him in line and torment him about the mysterious rhino and other hazards if he ever attempts to escape. 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 man instructs him not to lose the "tongues" and disappears. When James is returning to the house, he trips and the "tongues" escape into the ground.
This transforms a peach on a withered old tree into enormous proportions. Spiker and Sponge sell tickets to view the giant peach. James crawls inside a large hole he inadvertently creates in the peach, and he finds and befriends a group of life-size anthropomorphic bugs (Mr. Grasshopper, Mr. Centipede, Earthworm, Miss Spider, Mrs. Ladybug, and Glowworm). As they hear the aunts search for James, Mr. Centipede cuts the stem connecting the giant peach to the tree and the peach rolls away to the Atlantic Ocean.
Remembering his dream to visit New York City, James and the insects decide to go there with Mr. Centipede steering the peach. They use Miss Spider's silk to capture and tie a hundred seagulls to the peach stem, while battling against a giant robotic shark. Miss Spider reveals to James that she was the spider he saved from Spiker and Sponge. The next day, James and his friends find themselves in The Arctic; the Centipede has fallen asleep while keeping watch. After hearing Mr. Grasshoper wishing they had a compass, Mr. Centipede jumps off the peach into the icy water below and searches a sunken ship for a compass but is taken prisoner by skeletal pirates. James and Miss Spider rescue him and the journey continues.
As they reach New York City, a storm appears, along with the ghostly rhino. James is frightened but challenges the rhino and gets his friends to safety before the rhino strikes the peach with lightning; James and the peach fall to the city below, landing on top of the Empire State Building. After he is rescued by police officers, firefighters, and the largest crane in New York City, Spiker and Sponge arrive and attempt to claim James and the peach. James reveals Spiker and Sponge's abusive behavior towards him to the crowd, who gasp in shock at the revelation. Spiker and Sponge become enraged by James' betrayal and attempt to kill him. The bugs arrive and tie up Spiker and Sponge with Miss Spider's silk and both aunts are arrested. James introduces his friends to the New Yorkers and allows the children to eat up the peach.
The peach pit is made into a house in Central Park, where James lives happily with the bugs, who form his new family and also take important jobs in the city. James celebrates his ninth birthday with his new family.Paul Terry as James Henry Trotter
Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Sponge
Joanna Lumley as Aunt Spiker
Pete Postlethwaite as Narrator/the Magic Man
Steven Culp as James' Father
Susan Turner-Cray as James' Mother
Mike Starr as Beat Cop
Simon Callow as Mr. Grasshopper
Richard Dreyfuss as Mr. Centipede
Jeff Bennett as Mr. Centipede (singing voice)
Jane Leeves as Mrs. Ladybug
Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider
David Thewlis as Earthworm
Miriam Margolyes as Glowworm
Walt Disney Pictures acquired the film rights to the book from the Dahl estate in 1992. The film begins with normal live-action for the first 20 minutes, but becomes stop-motion animation after James enters the peach, and then live-action when James enters New York City (although the arthropod characters remained in stop-motion). Selick had originally planned James to be a real actor through the entire film, then later considered doing the whole film in stop-motion; but ultimately settled on entirely live-action and entirely stop-motion sequences, to keep lower costs. Unlike the novel, James' aunts are not killed by the rolling peach (though his parents' deaths occur as in the novel) but follow him to New York.
Though Roald Dahl refused numerous offers to have a film version of James and the Giant Peach produced during his lifetime, his widow, Liccy, approved an offer to have a live action version produced. She thinks Roald "would have been delighted with what they did with James. It is a wonderful film."
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 93% based on reviews from 69 critics, with an average score of 7.2/10. The site's consensus states: "The arresting and dynamic visuals, offbeat details and light-as-air storytelling make James and the Giant Peach solid family entertainment".
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, Original Musical or Comedy Score, by Randy Newman. It won Best Animated Feature Film at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.
A digitally restored Blu-ray/DVD combo pack was released by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment on August 3, 2010 in the United States.