Taika Waititi and his celebrity mates are teaming up to fight Covid-19 by bringing Roald Dahl’s beloved story to life, one Zoom call at a time.
If you’ve ever dreamed about Zooming an all-star Hollywood cast who stare deep into your eyes as they read you a bedtime story, then your dreams just came true. This morning the first episodes of James and The Giant Peach with Taika and Friends (JATGPWTAF, what an acronym) dropped exclusively on YouTube. It’s a new web series that features Taika Waititi and a bunch of celebrities reading Roald Dahl’s classic novel to raise money for charity, and it’s a joy from start to finish.
JATGPWTAF is a feel-good project on every count. It’s a collaboration between Roald Dahl Story Company, Waititi and the celebrities to raise money for Partners in Health, a global nonprofit organisation helping to fight Covid-19 in the most vulnerable parts of the world. This follows the recent announcement that Waititi will write, direct and executive produce two original Roald Dahl animated series for Netflix, based on the world and characters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Roald Dahl Story Company has committed to match $1 million of donations, so as Waititi says in episode one, “we’re all winning”. The first two of 10 instalments are available now, with the rest released every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5am (NZT). You can watch JATGPWTAF to support an excellent cause, or to witness some of the world’s best acting talent bring a beloved novel to life, or just to spend the entire 17 minutes admiring Benedict Cumberbatch’s colour-coordinated bookshelves. It’s up to you, but those bookshelves do look lovely.
The star power of JATGPWTAF is off the scale, with Waititi pulling together a dazzling line-up of celebrities. Liam and Chris Hemsworth and Nick Kroll join him in episode one, with Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumberbatch in the second. If that’s not impressive enough, the remaining eight episodes include Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Lupita Nyong’o, Billy Porter, Sarah Paulson, Eddie Redmayne, Ryan Reynolds and Beanie Feldstein. Even Gordon bloody Ramsay pops up. It’s like the Oscars, except everyone’s at home in their trackpants. See? They really are the same as us.
Waititi is the narrator in each episode, reading the story while the celebrities voice the different characters. Officially the actors are Waititi’s closest friends, but he admits he only knows about three of them personally. “When I say friends, I mean celebrities,” he says. He’s brilliant in this, of course, providing lively DIY sound effects and chucking his own two cents into the story. “This is just the first page! Now THAT’S writing,” he says in episode one, while in the second he describes elephant hunters with an adjective so un-child-friendly that his mouth is covered with a tiny peach. “Don’t say that,” Streep scolds. Release the tapes, please and thank you Meryl.
Zoom’s the perfect format for JATGPWTAF, giving it a relaxed, matesy vibe that makes it feel like we’re also one of Taika’s celebrity BFFs. Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations pop up through each episode, and the celebs are having the time of their lives. This is a fun, sweet, fabulous thing to watch. The actors get the giggles, they lose their place, they press their face right up to the camera. It’s even better when it goes a bit pear-shaped, and we should all riot if Streep and Cumberbatch’s performances as the “ugly hag aunts” aren’t recognised by the Academy in 2021.
The story, too, is a perfect choice for these anxious times. Young orphan James is having a shocker of a time living with his horrible aunts. He’s locked down and he doesn’t even have Zoom, but he does have a big peach and a whole lot of anthropomorphic bug mates in his garden. The novel’s themes of friendship, isolation and resilience couldn’t be more timely, and also, who doesn’t love a big peach?
JATGPWTAF is the perfect way to fight Covid-19, because it’s just us, Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth at home together, changing the world, one Aunt Sponge insult at a time. The kids in your life will lap these episodes up, but they’re such a delight that you’ll want to watch again once they’ve gone to bed. Thanks to Taika Waititi and his very close circle of friends, JATGPWTAF might just be the best thing we see all pandemic.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.