A review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Directed by Tim Burton; written by John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Alex McDowell; produced by Brad Grey and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Warner Brothers Pictures.
116 minutes. Rated PG.
STARRING: Johnny Depp (Willy Wonka), Freddie Highmore (Charlie Bucket), David Kelly (Grandpa Joe), Helena Bonham Carter (Mother Bucket), Noah Taylor (Father Bucket), Missi Pyle (Mrs. Beauregarde), James Fox (Mr. Salt), Deep Roy (Oompa-Loompas), Christopher Lee (Dr. Wonka), AnnaSophia Robb, (Violet Beauregarde), Jordan Fry (Mike Teavee), Philip Wiegratz (Augustus Gloop) and Julia Winter (Veruca Salt).
Tim Burton’s last film, Big Fish, celebrated the fanciful fictions of an outrageous liar, who embellished his past with such self-centered enthusiasm that he nearly ruined his son’s life. Burton found this egomaniac charming and endearing, and justified his behavior by concluding that creative fantasies can earn a man immortality. Eventually, that man’s extremely forgiving trophy wife and his neglected, exhausted son smiled affectionately as the old fool sailed off into the sunset.
Thus, when it was announced that Tim Burton was taking on a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it made sense. Here was another story about a man living in a world he’d invented, isolating himself in his dreams, engaging with people only so long as they were willing to play by his rules.
No, that’s not an indictment of Dahl’s beloved story. Willy Wonka, the candymaking wizard of the novel is a benevolent man, kind and insightful… far better than the rambling buffoon of Burton’s Big Fish. But it did seem almost predictable that Burton would be attracted to another misunderstood eccentric, and turn it into another endorsement of creative self-indulgence.
Well, surprise, surprise… Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not a celebration of unhealthy escapism. As a matter of fact, it’s his first harmlessly enjoyable film since Ed Wood. It’s also the first one since Ed Wood to admit that admits how self-indulgence can bring a heavy price.
Featuring Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland in a charming lead performance, David Kelley in an endearing turn as his supportive Grandpa Joe, and Johnny Depp in a characteristically weird and wonderful performance as Wonka himself, this movie is a guilt-free delight from start to finish. It’s just as whimsical as it should be.
In fact, Burton’s adaptation ends up … gasp! … reprimanding the zany, candymaking genius for his reclusive tendencies, and goading him toward engaging with society again and reconciling with a shadow from his past. It’s a tangent, and one that changes the meaning of Dahl’s classic story somewhat. Literary-adaptation purists will be horrified. But I’d argue that Dahl’s story is too simple to stand up well as a feature film, and thus it benefits from the amendments.
It’s a challenge to take a story about people who do little more than tour a building and turn it into something consistently entertaining. But Burton’s done it, and better than it was done in 1971. The material plays to his strengths–it’s becoming more and more clear that his fetish for the phantasmagoric makes him more interesting as a stylist than a storyteller. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gives him a big, bold framework across which he can drape his latest outrageous decorations.
The basic outline’s the same: Charlie Bucket is the virtuous son of poor parents who live with both sets of grandparents in a ramshackle hut. Grandpa Jo reminisces about his days working in Willy Wonka’s marvelous candy factory, before all of the employees were fired and Wonka withdrew into seclusion. When Wonka suddenly announces he’ll offer a tour to the winner of a contest, Charlie determines to find one of “golden tickets” hidden in one of Wonka’s candy bars. So, of course, there’s a miracle of sorts, and Charlie ends up joining a team of far less deserving children. As they proceed through the tour, each one’s character will be tested, and the winner will receive a far larger surprise than he bargains for.
It could so easily have gone wrong. Burton’s best move is to line up some remarkable young actors (Annasophia Robb, Phillip Wiegratz, Jordan Fry, and Julia Winter) who never wear out their welcome. Each one is arresting and interesting–we’ll probably see all of them again. The parents are perfectly chosen, their behaviors and temperaments explaining so much about the awful offspring. Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter are note-perfect as Charlie Bucket’s parents, and you’ll wish they had more screen time… perhaps even a prime time television series about life in that amazing little Bucket home.
Speaking of strong performances: Deep Roy, who plays each and every one of Wonka’s diminutive Oompa Loompa employees, deserves a whole shelf-load of small, identical trophies for what must have been a trying role. He sings, he dances, he impersonates bands from the Beatles to Spinal Tap, and he performs all of the necessary Oompa Loompa tasks. He’s the year’s best special effect.
And speaking of effects, it’s difficult to imagine a more splendid chocolate factory than this. Burton brings it to such vivid life, you can bet the theatres will sell record amounts of candy during Factory’s big screen run.
Smiling proudly at each room full of gooey gadgetry is Wonka himself. Is Depp a better Wonka than Gene Wilder was? Hard to say. They’ve delivered two entirely different performances. Wilder played Wonka as gentle, witty, and a wee bit sinister. Depp plays him as an overgrown child, confident in his creative abilities, but alarmed by grownups. He’s haunted and fractured by bad childhood memories to the point that he can’t even speak the word “parents” aloud. Depp’s Wonka strikes me as a man who has never matured past the point of his childhood trauma. And when we finally see Burton’s vision of what made Willy Wonka, it all makes a simple sort of sense
The relationship between young Willy and his father (Christopher Lee) will remind Burton fans of the relationship between Edward Scissorhands and his creator (Vincent Price). Both Wonka and Edward navigate their adult lives with a skewed sense of reality shaped by their father’s eccentricities. Burton makes the connection clear when, as Wonka first turns to face the camera, he’s triumphantly wielding a pair of scissors.
Like Edward, Wonka lives in a castle on a hill. But Edward was gentle and benevolent, happy to help in whatever way he could. Wonka is, by contrast, a dreamer, wanting to build himself a wonderland and rule over it while others are enthralled by his genius. But it’s a lonely path and he finds, in the end, that even though he never had a loving family of his own, his only route to happiness is to find one… and to deal gracefully and forgivingly with the unfortunate damage that’s been done to him.
I’m happy to see another mainstream entertainment affirming the direct connection between parental irresponsibility and damaged child psyches, even if that lesson is drawn in broad strokes. No, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in no way subtle–it aspires to be nothing more than a sugary sweet, seven-layer cake of a movie with a sprinkle of simple wisdom on top. If that wisdom is slightly different than Dahl intended, no matter. This is Burton’s factory, in the end, not Dahl’s, and it’s worth the price of a ticket.