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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 July 2005
Roald Dahl is one of the world’s most popular authors of children’s books; kids love them, adults don’t—they’re disturbed by his peculiar stories and twisted plots. Children, skeptical adults claim, don’t actually LEARN anything very useful from a Dahl book—but the kids don’t care. They love the sheer oddness of his books, and their unusual tone of being told not just for children, but by a child. (American writer Daniel Manus Pinkwater has this same quality, and is similarly regarded with suspicion by adults.) His books have occasionally been filmed; Tim Burton, the director of this one, produced a stop-motion movie of Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” “Matilda” was turned into an underrated live-action movie by Danny DeVito; “The Witches” also made a reasonably good movie.

Dahl wrote lots of other stuff, of course; he wrote enough short science fiction and horror stories to fill up two TV series, “Way Out” and “Tales of the Unexpected” (both featured the sardonic Dahl as host). He also worked on the script of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and the Bond film “You Only Live Twice.” “36 Hours” is a little-known but effective WW2 espionage film from a Dahl novel. But he’s gone now; the script for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is by John August.

The story is relatively simple: famous chocolatier Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) ran into business trouble fifteen years before the movie starts (there are plenty of flashbacks); he fired everyone and closed down his enormous factory. But then he opened it up again, mystifying the world by resuming production without any evident staff. And nobody’s seen him in years, either.

Now he announces a contest. In five of the millions of Wonka candy bars on sale all around the world are golden tickets entitling the bearer (and an adult) to a tour of the factory conducted by Willy Wonka himself and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Plus one of the lucky ticket holders will be granted a special prize.

The world goes candy-bar crazy, but finally four golden tickets are produced. Young Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) lives in a ramshackle cottage near the Wonka factory with his parents (Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter) and all four grandparents. Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), in fact, worked for Wonka until he laid everyone off. They can only afford one candy bar for honest, good little Charlie—and it doesn’t have a golden ticket. Grandpa Joe buys another—no ticket. Then Charlie finds money in a snowbank; sure enough, the bar he buys has the golden ticket.
On the appropriate morning, all five kids with adult companions turn up at Willy Wonka’s factory. After they enter, an “It’s a Small World”-type display of dancing dolls announces Willy Wonka, then burst into flame as Wonka comes up behind his guests.

He’s a weird fellow. He’s dressed in dark Edwardian clothes, has a top hat and a cane, and a Prince Valiant page-boy bob. He’s very pale, almost blue, and has deep violet eyes. His manner is brisk and friendly, but he’s a little nervous and has to consult prompt cards occasionally. He also has difficulty with the word “parents.”

But he’s a gleeful host and takes his guests into his factory.

Where the story goes from there is relatively predictable. One by one, four of the kids demonstrate hideous traits and are summarily punished in bizarre fashion. Gobble-goody German Augustus Gloop Philip Wiegratz) falls into Wonka’s amazing river of chocolate and is sucked away by an elaborate system of pipes. Martial arts champ and gum-chomper Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) grabs a stick of Wonka gum against Willy’s advice, and swells up into an enormous purple sphere. The spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is carried off on a carpet of squirrels and thrown down a garbage chute. Mean, egotistical Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry), a video game addict, is turned into a shrunken TV picture. (In a sequence that, bizarrely, references both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Psycho.”)

Willy is aided by all this by a huge number of Oompa-Loompas. These are knee-high natives of a distant land who had to eat worms to live, but who really love cocoa beans—the source of chocolate. Now an army of Oompa-Loompas—all played by dwarf Deep Roy in pretty amazing special effects—are the staff of the factory. And when each child is dealt the appropriate punishment, throngs of Oompa-Loompas turn up to sing an accompanying song. The children are a little suspicious that though Wonka claims these fates are accidental, the song lyrics include their names

Each of the young actors is given a moment that’s all theirs, brief as it may be. Video-game junkie Jordon Fry snarls “Die! Die! Die!” as he defeats his electronic opponent. But the main character, of course, is the Charlie of the title. Freddie Highmore appeared in “Finding Neverland” with Johnny Depp, who was so impressed by the boy that he recommended him to Tim Burton for this film. He made the right choice. Highmore is an ordinary-looking kid with ears that stick out in a peculiar manner, but he’s also charming, winning and a good companion for the journey through the chocolate factory.

The book was, of course, filmed once before as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory;” it starred Gene Wilder as a very different Willy Wonka than we get here. The movie didn’t do well theatrically (although it did boost sales of the co-financing Quaker Oats candy line), but over the years has gained a devoted fan following. Some have already expressed outrage that anyone would dare do a remake; even Wilder has said that the new one is only intended to make money (as if his wasn’t). It’s hard to tell what these diehard fans will make of the new movie.

The only serious problem with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is that it’s so repetitious. One by one, each of the bad children is punished and Oompa-Loompas sing and dance. Then on to the next awful fate. But while adults might find this repetition a little tedious, or at least predictable, kids will probably like seeing the various (non-fatal) punishments dealt out. And the songs are pretty good, although I, for one, had a hard time understanding the lyrics. (The singer is movie composer Danny Elfman, the lyrics are right from the book.)

Otherwise the movie is a wonder for the ages. The production design varies from the grim industrial city outside the Wonka factory (which seems to be both in England and the U.S.) to the varying glories inside the factory. One room is a landscape where everything is edible, even the grass, and the colors here are dazzling. Another room is all white—even the Oompa-Loompas wear white. Others look like mad scientist labs gone amuck. There’s a big circular room with squirrels on stools cracking nuts (and these are mostly REAL squirrels, not CGI). Every corner brings a dazzling new vision, like the vast translucent seahorse boat that seems to be made of cherry candy, and which is propelled by a large team of tiny Oompa-Loompa oarsmen.

In an element not found in the book, Willy occasionally remembers why he developed such a fixation on chocolate. His (evidently widowed) father Dr. Wilbur Wonka (a wavy-haired Christopher Lee) insisted little Willy wear a colossal set of braces that fit around his head. When Willy returns from Halloween trick-or-treating, his father burns the candy—bad for braces, you know, and lollipops are merely cavities on a stick. It’s uncertain whether the movie really needed this backstory, but it does pay off in a surprisingly touching scene between Lee and Depp.

Some critics have said that Depp seems to be doing an impression of Michael Jackson; if so, they say, it seems unwise at this time. However, I saw not a trace of Michael Jackson in Depp’s Willy Wonka. Yes, he’s a slender man with pale skin (and an amazing set of white teeth), dresses in an old-fashioned style, and interacts with children in a Disneyland-like setting. But Willy is really quite something else; he’s not a child, though he’s childlike; he’s also more of a schemer than he lets on (those song lyrics, for example), and he’s just a shade unhappy. He’s brittle but cheerful, a little uncertain (those prompt cards), and perfectly willing to make cutting remarks to the nastier kids.

This is another amazing performance by Johnny Depp, one of the most creative actors in movies today. He never does the same thing twice, he is always inventive, always fresh and new. Usually his experimentation works, sometimes it doesn’t. And he seems to work especially well with Tim Burton: this is the fifth movie they’ve done together. (The others: “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow” and the upcoming “Corpse Bride.”)

There’s a distinctive, hard-to-define tone to all of Tim Burton’s movies except the remake of “Planet of the Apes.” There’s a sense that all this is a fable happening inside Tim Burton’s head, and he’s invited us in to watch it unfold. All his landscapes, even the Los Angeles of “Ed Wood,” seem like places where miracles can casually occur. I didn’t much care for “Big Fish,” his most recent movie, but it also had that same delicate tone, like a movie projected on a soap bubble—one wrong breath and it’s gone.

Burton is in his element here. Most of his movies have a layer of darkness just behind everything; “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is very funny, but also seems like a horror movie for children. It’s not scary, but there exists the thrilling possibility that at any moment it might decide to frighten the hell out of you. There’s a sense of anticipation—but just what we’re anticipating is kept a cunning secret. Maybe something good, maybe something scary, but unquestionably something interesting.

Yes, Dahl was criticizing bad children, but it was fun criticism; children didn’t see themselves as the bad kids, but as sweet-natured little Charlie Bucket. I suspect Dahl didn’t regard his books as instructive, but as entertainment. It’s like what Willy Wonka says here: “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.”

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