Locus Online
Features Indexes
Monday 25 July 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Review by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee, Julia Winter, Annasophia Robb, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz

Both: Slightly split decision here. Howard thinks it's swell. Lawrence thinks it's swell unless you think about it.

Howard Waldrop: I wish I could have seen this as a kid. Of course, if I had, I would have missed all the visual references to Invaders from Mars (1953), The Blue Bird (1940), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1954), Eddie Cantor's Whoopee!, 1933, Cordwainer Smith (keep a sharp eye on the elevator buttons), Metropolis (1926) and countless others. Plus, it has a lot of stuff on its own…

Lawrence Person: As far as Unnecessary Remakes go, this is about as good as it gets. It retains most of the charm of both the book and the previous movie, brings Burton's trademark style, and is thoroughly entertaining... but once you do start to think about it, it falls apart.

Of course, since it's a fairy tale, there are a lot of things you know you can't think about going in. Between Charlie's Dickensian hovel to Willie Wonka's Disneyland-by-way-of-Gormenghast (with just a pinch of Barad-dur thrown in for flavoring), this is obviously a world in which Social Security, OSHA, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (or their UK equivalents, since Charlie's family's accents suggest a UK local) play no part. "Mr. Wonka, I would like to have a word with you regarding the lack of guardrails along your chocolate river..." These things are clearly deadly to non-postmodern (i.e. Shrek) fairy tales (or else can only exist as part of the nightmare, as in Brazil).

That said, Burton has dropped a few postmodern touches of his own in; some work, some don't. The "It's a Small Wonka World" puppet show gone horribly, flammably wrong is a nicely creepy scene that deconstructs itself, and the bit with the sheep (you'll know it when you see it) is truly funny. On the other hand, the 2001 riff is ponderously obvious, and Wonka walking into the glass elevator door twice is way too slapstick for the movie's overall tone.

Until the very end, the plot is the same as the original movie and the book it's based on: Reclusive chocolater Willy Wonka sends out five golden tickets hidden within the wrappings of his candy bars, entitling the children finding them (our hero Charlie and four rotten rivals) a firsthand tour of his fabulous, unseen factory staffed by the mysterious, diminutive Oompa Loompas. During the course of the tour, each of the rotten children gets their just desserts for their crimes, leaving Charlie to be named Wonka's heir. It's such an appealing formula that at least three of Fox's recent primetime cartoons (Futurama, Family Guy, and The Simpsons) have used elements of it.

HW: The opening — the closed factory smokestack in a snowfall — took me back to my childhood (well, early teenage) and suddenly I was back at the first showing of George Pal's The Time Machine (1960). We then watch production designer Alec McCoawan's very imaginative (and highly inefficient) machine making a chocolate bar, and we're off into the world of Charlie Bucket and his extended poor family, and the search for the Golden Ticket.

The Bucket's house looks like it was built by Caligari after he left the asylum and took up carpentry. The front door's halfway up one wall at a 38° angle. Parts of the house are roofless (and become more so) and the four grandparents live in a huge bed, lying feet to feet. This bed is the social center of the house — even the meals (cabbage soup) are eaten there.

Once we get into the tour of Wonka's factory, we're treated to some fantastic production numbers by the Oompa Loompa (the Oompa Loompa — Deep Roy, replicated hundreds of times) — the aforementioned Whoopee!-like one, in the Dr. Seuss-type chocolate river set; there's a Who-like (the musical group, not the Horton one) (LP: I had that one pegged as the Oompa Loompa version of Spinal Tap); one reminds me of something Devo would have done in Akron. The best is for Veruca Salt in the nut-squirrel room. The songs work. Any movie that, while the audience files out to the end credits, has the multiplex ushers dancing to Danny Elfman's music (like the screening I saw) has something going for it.

LP: The CGI and production design are uniformly excellent, except for two of the children leaving the factory at the end, which look fake. All the rest is a feast for the eyes, even if it's occasionally of the primary color eye-candy variety.

HW: Let's talk resonance and metafiction: The industrial spy early on in the flashbacks, who causes the factory to be shut down for fifteen years, looks suspiciously like middle-age photos of the late author Roald Dahl (who was a spy in WWII); the actress who plays Charlie's mother (Helena Bonham Carter) looks as much like Patricia Neal (Mrs. Roald Dahl to you) as anybody ever has. (Surely on purpose — Dahl's daughter Felicity is one of the executive producers.) Depp's hairstyle, as he has said, is Brian Jones', late of the Rolling Stones.

Some people have said Depp is channeling Michael Jackson. (LP: Me among them; the uniformly pale skin and the high-pitched giggly voice have no precedent in the Gene Wilder version.) No: the movie's subtext is Michael Jackson. (Or maybe Jackson took cues from the book, since it was published before Michael was in the Jackson Five, and he was there before he was five...)

Depp's performance has some find of Brechtian alienation effect going — his performance only; everyone else plays in the high or low mimetic modes, especially the grandfather and James Fox (Mr. Salt).

LP: As long as we're talking resonance and subtext, let's talk about the real reason the demonstrably wacky story continues to resonate today, even more than when the book was originally published: The delicious joy of seeing thoroughly horrible children subjected to appropriately nasty fates. Hollywood's first commandment is Though Shalt Offend No Potential Audience Segment, and thus avoids irking America's vast Lumpenparetant by showing their Little Darlings as anything darker than poor, misunderstood lambs who just didn't get enough hugs. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (any version) says they're not misunderstood, they're spoiled little rotters who need to be shoved down garbage chutes and run through juicing machines. Seldom has schadenfreude been so deeply satisfying (in an Old Testament via The Brothers Grimm sort of way).

HW: The Oompa Loompas act like they wandered in from Bollywood, or some Busby Berkeley movie circa 1939-1940 (The Drunk Years). They give absolutely the best performances (performance) in the movie — they kick up everything three notches every time they start moving. They're creepy in a highly unusual way (like the Ducky Boys in The Wanderers (1979).) First they're used as part of the décor; then they're the movie's superego and id all rolled into one...

LP: Pretty much everything that worked in the 1971 version works here, though the production designs are radically different (this version has Burton's trademark dark whimsy, while the 1971 version's badly-dated psychedelic wonderland is oddly one of its most enduring charms). With one exception, all the children are appropriately good, appropriately well-acted, and appropriately one-dimensional (even Charlie, who's as one-dimensionally good as the other children are rotten). Julia Winter is especially good as Veruca Salt, and has the sort of cheekbones that people will be throwing large sums of money at come 2011...

The only character which doesn't work at all is the one which has been updated, Mike Teavee. Instead of a worshipper of the One-Eyed Idiot God, he comes across as a rage-filled, obnoxious 1337 H@X0R from Generation Twitch, cracking Wonka's golden ticket distribution secrets while taking a break from his first person shooter video games. Already the weakest of the four bad children in the original (each of the others personifying a deadly sin: Avarice for Veruca Salt, Pride for Violet Beauregarde, and Gluttony for Augustus Gloop), here's he's made incoherent. For one thing, everything he says to Wonka is true. Wonka's bizarre factory doesn't make any sense, his television ideas are crazy and impractical (except, of course, they work), and teleportation is infinitely more important than distributing chocolate via TV. The other rotten children receive appropriately just desserts for their sins; Mike Teevee acts like an idiot only because the script makes him. Moreover, the other parents act as enablers for their awful progeny; by contrast, Mike's father seems level-headed but ineffectual. Mike Teavee's character bears the hallmarks being left half-formed by the classic Hollywood "too many cooks" syndrome, frozen somewhere between a caterpillar and a butterfly in a script that received either two rewrites too many, or one too few.

HW&LP: Another thing that doesn't work is the ending (or almost ending). Throughout the movie, we get little flashbacks of the young Willy Wonka growing up under the stern gaze of his candy-disapproving dentist father (the indomitable Christopher Lee, who's now appeared in films earning a collective gross of about $3.5 billion just in this century; it's great to see him still being the Consummate Actor in his eighties). They're fine, if a bit unnecessary, but their main purpose is to set up the wholly unconvincing Dickensian Christmas Carol Happy Family Reconciliation scene at the finish: any more and the screen would ooze saccharine (besides chocolate): then Burton gives you a double visual whammy that is just the right note on which to end the movie. Then you get to dance with the ushers to Elfman's end-title reprise.

LP: I don't want to come down too hard on this. With a little more script polish, and touch firmer hand to reign in Burton and Depp's excesses, this could have been a great movie; as it is, it's still a good one. You'll enjoy seeing it as long as you don't think about it too hard.

HW: I wish this had been around when I was a kid.

See it with someone you love, especially if they're shorter than you.

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.