`James' Takes Viewers On Quite A Ride

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XXX 1/2 "James and the Giant Peach," with Paul Terry, Miriam Margolyes, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Henry Selick from a script by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Bloom. Alderwood, Bella Bottega 7, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Enumclaw, Everett Mall 1-3, Factoria, Gateway, Issaquah 9, Metro, Mountlake 9, Northgate, Puyallup, Renton Village, Snohomish, Totem Lake. Rated "PG" for scary scenes. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Vivid children's entertainment is scarce. The cute, cuddly creature movies that some parents (and politicians) want children to view are bland. Only rarely is there a breakthrough like "Babe.

Deep down, 8-year-olds want nasty things to happen - big dinosaurs eating things, or bugs crawling all around. Thank goodness for author Roald Dahl.

Dahl's macabre undertones give us grittier worlds. Parents die, kids are nasty, the hero can even be turned into a mouse - and like it.

Take James Henry Trotter, an English lad whose nightmarish world has killed his beautiful parents (a rhino stampede) and sent him to live with appropriately named Aunts Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes). James is their chore boy, and only when a mysterious man (Pete Postlethwaite) enters his world is there any adventure - a whole lot of adventure.

For reasons explained in the movie, James is turned into a different creature, a young puppet. He enters a giant peach that has magically grown. There he finds other creatures that also have been touched by magic. Insects now are James' size, with voices and attitudes. They include a posh grasshopper (voiced by Simon Callow), a French spider (Susan Sarandon), a feisty centipede (Richard Dreyfuss) and a benevolent ladybug (Jane Leeves of "Frasier"). They decide to take flight, with help of some seagulls, and head to New York City, where dreams come true.

"James and the Giant Peach" is brought to life by Henry Selick, the creative director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Along with "Nightmare" producers Denise Di Novi and Tim Burton, Selick has created another fascinating world of stop-motion animation.

For any fan of the imaginative effects process, "James" is a must (the special effects are more complex than those in "Nightmare"). The story elements, coming from such an established source as Dahl, instantly create a better movie. At "Nightmare" you oohed and ahhed over the technology; "James" captivates you with its humor and characters.

As with Dahl's previous movie adaptation, the underrated "The Witches," his ghastly world remains intact. The youngest kids will be scared out of their pants with "James." Parents, please choose wisely.

That warning aside, "James" is a wonderful ride. The high-caliber voice-over cast has a ball. The ensemble bumps into a wonderful array of creations, including a Jules Verne shark and a band of pirates. Add to this an inspired song by Randy Newman (head and shoulders above his work on "Toy Story") and you have 80 minutes of fun, even though the finale collapses.

The best surprise is Selick's handling of the live-action sequences, notably the opening scenes. Young James (a perfect Paul Terry) works around the surreal sets of Harley Jessup (conceived by illustrator Lane Smith).

"James and the Giant Peach" proves the best effects are even better with a strong story.