by Mel Valentin
Cheerless, hermetic, dreary, garish, and featuring one of the most misjudged performances in recent film history, Tim Burton’s adaptation of the late Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (filmed in 1971 as "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"), with Gene Wilder in the lead role), is and ultimately too flawed to recommend. Burton’s adaptation also signals the decline of a talented visual stylist that began with the remake of "Planet of the Apes" and accelerated with "Big Fish" (the forthcoming "Corpse Bride" may, hopefully, challenge that assertion).Fans of Roald Dahl’s novel or the 1971 film directed by Mel Stuart (later disavowed despite being based on Dahl’s screenplay) will be immediately familiar with the storyline. Willie Wonka, the world’s foremost chocolatier lives inside a fantastical candy factory. As the first of many flashbacks informs us, Wonka closed his factory to the public and to local employees due to industrial espionage. The surrounding post-industrial town has suffered terribly from Wonka’s withdrawal into his self-made fantasy world (and as the town's major employer).
"Weirdness for weirdness' sake. Don't believe the hype."
Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), our protagonist, lives in dire, if surprisingly conflict-free, surroundings with his parents and two sets of grandparents (as in the source material and the 1971 adaptation, Charlie’s four grandparents share a single bed). Charlie’s life is not quite Dickensonian, but it’s close. His father (Noah Tyler) works at the local toothpaste company, but faces redundancy (thanks to high-tech machinery). Charlie apparently spends his days dreaming of visiting Wonka’s factory. He, along with four other children, gets his chance, when Willie Wonka sends out news of five golden tickets, placed randomly inside Wonka’s chocolate bars. Each ticket gives its holder (and a family member) the opportunity to tour Wonka’s factory. Charlie, of course, obtains a golden ticket, inviting his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) along for the guided tour.
The other four children, as spoiled as Charlie is poor and humble, include Augustus Gloop (Philip Weigratz), an obese boy, Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), a spoiled little rich girl, Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), as ultra-competitive as her mother (Missi Pyle), and Mike Teevee (Jordan Fry), an obnoxious know-it-all obsessed with violent video games. At the appointed time, they meet their enormously eccentric host, Willie Wonka (Johnny Depp), whose tour of his factory hides an ulterior motive, described vaguely as an additional prize given to just one child at the end of the tour.
The haphazard tour leads, of course, to a series of misadventures, each one crowned by a Danny Elfman-penned song sung by the Oompa Loompas (Deep Roy, cloned via CGI technology). Elfman’s songs are as unmemorable as they are uninspired, and the dance numbers, meant to reference musicals (for example, Esther Williams aquatic-dance routines) that older adults would be hard pressed to recall, let alone care about it, even if the reference came immediately to mind. Burton and his screenwriter, John August (Big Fish), also tip their hand with several lazy film references, from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the 1958 version of The Fly, and on through to a gratuitous reference to a character from the 1960s television series, The Addams Family.
The dance numbers are just one indication, among many, as to why Stuart’s 1971 adaptation remains, at least for the time being, the definitive version. Burton, given a free hand, spares no expense in overdesigning enormous, garishly colorful sets. Burton’s penchant for production design over traditional narrative, what, in another context, might be called “gigantism,” was already evident in his first foray into big-budget filmmaking, the neo-baroque Batman and the sequel, Batman Returns. Here, Burton’s visual style fails to compensate for an unfocused storyline, a storyline that gives the ostensible lead character, Charlie, little to do except exchange platitudes with his family and Willie Wonka, and which transfers a recognizable character and dramatic arc from Charlie to Willie Wonka, who is given a risible, reductive childhood trauma he needs to overcome before the end credits roll.
The switch in focus from Charlie to Wonka leads to a larger, insurmountable problem, Johnny Depp’s performance as Willie Wonka. Decked out oversized sunglasses, a natty greatcoat, top hat and cane (not to mention the Prince Valiant/pageboy haircut and pale skin), Depp plays up Wonka’s popstar-like eccentricities, sometimes to comic effect, but rarely to elicit audience sympathy. Depp’s stylized, mannered performance, accentuated by oddball line deliveries (apparently meant to emphasis Wonka’s poor social skills), creates a distancing effect between his character and the audience. Later, as the audience begins to grasp that Wonka has become the central figure in the film (thanks to multiple flashbacks to a childhood haunted by a domineering parent), it becomes nearly impossible to shift sympathies from Charlie to Wonka. Instead, the audience is forced to accept (or reject) Wonka’s singularly underwritten transformation, from willful, isolated eccentric to family man.While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a pro-family message (after all, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is marketed as a “family film”), ultimately the success of that message, where we, as audience members, buy into that message, depends on a fair approximation of verisimilitude, identifiable, believable characters whose stories and dramatic arcs compel us to care about their emotional lives. Depp’s Wonka, sadly, wasn’t intended as such a character (Gene Wilder’s interpretation of the character comes closer, however). Deep's nervous tics, twitters, and (occasionally) blank stares are just one more indication of Burton’s inability to step outside his carefully constructed, hermetically sealed universe and into our own.
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originally posted: 07/22/05 01:50:31