Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/16/05 18:18:50

"For those who don't have the 1971 film handy, this new one'll do fine."
3 stars (Just Average)

Most remakes are met with a sigh of surrender. When it was first announced, Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” an updating of the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” that sticks far more closely to Roald Dahl’s unforgettable children’s book than the original film ever did (even the title’s changed back to match Dahl’s), managed to get no such sigh. For even though this is the same guy that delivered the regrettable “Planet of the Apes” upgrade, we knew him better for his dark, giddy work on movies we actually liked. And we, as a public as a whole, seemed to rise up in one voice and say yeah, if anybody’s going to do it, Tim Burton would be the right guy for the job.

And he is. Burton’s vision of the world of Wonka, which so carefully balances the innocent and the sinister, is, for the most part (more on that in a bit), spot on. Working with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (“Big Fish”) and a noteworthy art direction team, “Charlie” is, no pun intended, delicious eye candy. Remember that dazzling reveal in “Willy Wonka,” where we first get to see the meadow made entirely of candy? The same scene here provides the same awe-inspiring impact. Other shots match the original film in terms of their “wow” factor, while others even manage to top them - the entire pre-factory portion of the new movie, in fact, provides an incredible fairy tale feel to the proceedings, with Charlie’s one-room house (devoid of 90 degree angles) being a work of pure wonder.

The cast is also as memorable as that of the older film (with so many changes, I’m weary of calling it the “original” film), with a fine collection of child actors filling in the roles of the five children who find the Golden Tickets and win a tour of Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory. (That’s as much of a plot rundown as I’ll provide. Chances are pretty darn good that you’re already familiar with either the older film or the book, and any more discussion of the basic storyline would only be redundant for all of us.) Leading them all is arguably the finest young actor working in movies today: Freddie Highmore. You may remember Highmore from his touching performance in “Finding Neverland;” he also provided excellent turns in the enchanting fantasy “Five Children and It” and the underappreciated tiger drama “Two Brothers.” Here, he reunites with his “Neverland” costar Johnny Depp (Depp, it’s reported, recommended him for the role) and pretty much steals the show with his charisma. There’s something winning about Highmore’s natural charm and innocence; we like Charlie instantly because we like Highmore instantly.

At Highmore’s side is a collection of fine actors old and young. Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Weigratz (newcomers all), and Annasophia Robb (“Because of Winn-Dixie”) round out the cast of children, and there’s not a sour note in the bunch - finally, we get a movie full of kids where the kids are worth watching. On the grown-ups’ side, we find Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor as Charlie’s kindly but poor parents, and the indispensable David Kelly as Charlie’s loving Grandpa Joe. Watching Kelly spring from his bed and do a jig is one of the film’s most delightful moments.

(As if this were not enough, Burton also brings in James Fox and Christopher Lee for supporting roles. Brilliant casting all around.)

And then there’s Johnny Depp. Perhaps on purpose, perhaps by chance, Depp’s turn as Willy Wonka is as far from Gene Wilder as one can get, and this fact will either make or break the movie for you - depending, I suppose, on how attached you are to the older movie. Me, I felt Wilder’s performance is the better of the two, although that’s mainly an issue with the screenplay and the material both actors are required to handle (again, more on that in a bit). On its own, Depp’s performance has its own special qualities. His Wonka is most definitely an oddball, not just in the look (with the velvet jacket and jet black Prince Valiant hairdo), but in Depp’s mannerisms. Depp turns Wonka into a gifted manchild, someone so obsessed with candy that he never lost his childish demeanor, yet someone so shut off from the rest of the world that he’s perhaps lost touch with our plane of reality.

It’s a different take on the role, to be sure, and the problem Depp may face is that for it to work, it must rely entirely on nuance - and nuance can easily be missed. If you’re willing to look for it, though, you’ll be rewarded with another of the actor’s brilliant works. Depp seems to have asked, “what would happen to a guy so mind-bogglingly brilliant if he were locked away in a fairy tale world for so long, with only candy on his mind?” The peculiar Wonka we see on screen is the result of such questions.

Better still, keep an eye on Depp’s, um, eyes. Remember how Wilder’s Wonka was an enigma, how you never what he was thinking about the trouble all those kids were causing? Depp hides this mystery under one more layer. He lets it peek through at key moments in the film, when we finally get a glance at a serious look from Depp’s Wonka, as though he’s up to something, and Veruca Salt’s disappearance into the garbage chute is all part of his plan, but there’s no telling what that plan may be. For a performance this openly outlandish, it’s a delight to see the actor put so much effort into the subtle as well.

Yet “Charlie” falls short on several occasions, most notably in its attempts to flesh out the Wonka character. Again, Wonka was designed to be a mystery. Why, then, does screenwriter John August pad the plot by giving us an overly detailed look into Wonka’s childhood? We learn that his father (Lee) was a strict dentist, and the strained relationship between the two set the tone for a general distaste for parents the world over. (He can’t even say the word “parent,” gagging any time he tries.) Was this necessary? Not at all. It merely exists in an attempt to put more oomph into the final scenes, but it’s so clunky in its execution that the entire ending winds up being too awkward to fully enjoy.

Another issue with the finale stems from the source material. (While giving nothing away to those familiar with the book or older film, I would still consider this a spoiler and therefore tell anyone who wants to avoid such things to kindly move ahead to two paragraphs down.) Watching “Charlie,” with its steady faithfulness to Dahl’s writings, it became clear to me that “Willy Wonka,” with all its wild departures from the book, was actually an improvement on the story. A quick reread of the book supported my theory: the 1971 film managed to add an extra bit of depth to the proceedings. In the film, as you recall, Charlie was chosen to inherit the factory not merely because he was the only kid not done in by misdeeds, but because he passed the final test - keeping his promise to return the gobstopper. It proved that Charlie was a good person through and through, a boy of principle who lived up to his word even when he felt he’d been cheated.

This Charlie, however, wins only by default - the screenplay even adds a new line that Wonka was going to give the factory to the “least rotten” of the five children. That’s not as promising, is it? I mean, would you rather be called the nicest, or the one that’s not as bad as the rest? This story isn’t supposed to be about the lesser of five evils. It’s supposed to be a morality tale about being good, through and through. That’s a lesson sorely missing in Burton’s update.

Which brings us - and welcome back, non-spoiled folks - to the Oompa Loompas. While I loved seeing Burton’s take on these mischievous workers (they’re all clones of actor Deep Roy; they’ve been scaled down to around two feet in height, enhancing their already otherworldly qualities), I just couldn’t get into their songs. Remember the old “Oompa Looma” songs? The ones that they sang while they came to take another bad kid away? The ones that would explain why eating so much or being a spoiled brat or watching too much TV isn’t good for you? Yeah, those were fun.

Here, they’re not so much. For starters, composer Danny Elfman (who also sings as the voice of the Oompa Loompas) tries to get too hip: one tune is a disco funk number, another a modern-surf diddy in the sound of the art rock band the Polyphonic Spree. Catchy, perhaps, but come on. Disco funk? The older movie’s music (the good stuff, not that “Cheer Up, Charlie” crap) continues to work because its style wasn’t connected to its era. That made it timeless. Here, Elfman’s going for the super-cool sound, and it’s sure to date this film far too quickly.

Worse, there’s one number - the Mike Teavee one - where half the lyrics are indecipherable. It’s kinda hard to teach kids a lesson when they can’t even figure out what you’re singing.

It’s a shame that a sloppy finish and some poorly conceived musical numbers make “Charlie” less enjoyable. Because if you factor out these missteps, you’ve got one brilliant picture on your hands. Ignore the gaffes, and this retelling sparkles with the shine of a treasured fable. It’s remarkably easy on the eyes, and its sense of humor keeps things speeding along at a delightful pace. So while I’m tempted to sulk about the ways in which “Charlie” goes wrong, I’ll do my best to ignore them. Instead, I’ll cheer over the many ways it goes right. This one will most likely not be as memorable and eternal as the 1971 version, but it will charm those modern crowds who plan to stop by for a visit.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.