Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

September 1st, 2005 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Tim Burton

Starring; Johnny Depp, Freddy Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, David Kelly

Should we all run away now? Will it be too fresh in moviegoer’s minds what happened with Tim Burton’s last reimagining-not-remake (reimagining having become a dirty word in Hollywood after the scathing response to Burton’s Planet of the Apes)?

There was also a chance we’d end up with a pseudo horror story. Burton’s well known for going back to the (often bleak) source material and stripping away all the mass appeal that TV or older film versions have used to make various stories their own (think of everything from Batman to Sleepy Hollow). Would Willy Wonka be a craggy, deranged wizard in a chocolate factory covered in trademark Burton gargoyles, the Oompa Loompas sharp toothed, snarling demons ready to devour Violet, Augustus and the rest of the kids alive?

Roald Dahl was a children’s author, but like the best of the genre, he slyly elbowed themes of glaring cultural significance into his stories, often disguising barely concealed horrors unimagined even in adult fiction. They all did it — Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis, Heinrich Hoffman (who penned the bloodthirsty Struwwelpeter stories, upon whom Burton’s Edward Scissorhands was partly based).

With a mind renowned for building fantastic worlds of texture and spectacle, Dahl was the equivalent of today’s filmmakers like Burton and Terry Gilliam, people who use celluloid as a canvas to let their imaginations run riot. Such a place was Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and if ever there was a film director to do Dahl’s novel justice, Burton must be one of the few contenders.

There’s also the 1971 film, which Burton claimed not have even seen until very recently and didn’t particularly like. It won’t be as easy for a generation of thirtysomethings to dismiss it, however — being one of a holy pantheon of movies that cause a glow of fond memories about Friday nights in front of the TV. It’s also probably a safe bet more people have seen Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s version than have read Dahl’s book, so Burton was playing with fire to some extent.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is nevertheless enjoyable, although in an uncharacteristic move, Burton has dispensed with all the darkness of Stuart and Wilder’s 1971 version, the reverse of his usual direction. Charlie is an out and out kids movie, and unashamedly so.

Where Wilder’s Wonka was sardonic and sarcastic, Depp’s character is goofy and clumsy, like a kid himself. Where Wilder was had a wry, knowing smile and danced on the fringe of being a dangerous psycho (as anyone who saw the infamous paddle wheel boat sequence as a 10 year old will remember), Depp is far less opaque, and his Wonka is turned into a wacky recluse who just wants to be loved.

Because of the other elements Burton introduces, the strongest is Wonka’s backstory; of being the overprotected kid wrapped in orthodontic gear whose father was an authoritarian dentist (Lee) who forbade candy because of the damage it could do to teeth.

The other notable addition is the glass elevator, the subject of Dahl’s sequel that was left out of the 1971 film because of legal wrangling (Dahl hated the changes made by screenwriter David Seltzer and forbade them from using Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator for later films). The elevator also carries the story further than the factory, also providing Depp with his most overt comic opportunity through his habit of walking into it.

Each of the other children and their parents have been more or less updated to modern times, but the real star (as always) is Burton’s production design. In what must have been a set designers dream, the film brings to life many of the rooms Dahl describes in the book in garish detail, including the nut sorting room — complete with 40 squirrels, many of which were trained from scratch to perform.

Even the topography of London is typically Tim Burton; row after row of dreary, industrial revolution-era terraces with the crooked, ramshackle Bucket house at one end of a huge boulevard and the Valhalla-like Wonka chocolate factory at the other.

One single actor, digitally transposed onto the film, plays all the Oompa Loompas. Their songs upon the demise of each child are a big laugh and each a grand production, not the cheesy folk music of the original.

It’s a case both of something lost and something gained. Lost is the satirical smirk and irrepressible charm of the original, but gained is the filmmaking technology to break all the barriers and present Charlie’s world as Dahl must have been seeing it in his head hunched over his typewriter.


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