I dimly remember reading Roald Dahl‘s book as a child but, for the life of me, I can’t recall if I ever saw the 1971 adapatation with Gene Wilder. I almost rented it to watch a few weeks ago but the only copy I could get from Netflix was the original pan-and-scan “full” screen edition. I’m sorry, but if there is one thing that this writer does not abide, it’s the butchering of a film’s original image to fit the confines of a TV screen. Thus the Wilder version will go unreviewed here until I can track down a widescreen copy.
Tim Burton‘s other films based on other people’s material have been a mixed bag. His two Batman movies have been impressive to look at but ultimately unsatisfying if you were actually interested in seeing a film about Batman. His take on Planet of the Apes didn’t exactly make people forget about Charleton Heston. Until now, Burton had seemed happier playing in sandboxes of his own creation. Charlie‘s off-center, slightly twisted fairy tale universe, however, seems tailor-made for the director’s style.
To call Charlie Bucket’s family dirt poor is to badly understate the socio-economic standing of dirt. They’re so impoverished, they can’t even afford a house with right angles. All four of Charlie’s grandparents sleep, eat and pretty much live in the same bed. Mrs. Bucket (Helena Bonham Carter) has to make every meal out of cabbage and more cabbage. Mr. Bucket (Noah Taylor) just lost his job putting caps on toothpaste. Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) entertains Charlie (Freddie Highmore) with stories of working in Willy Wonka’s massive chocolate factory before Wonka, fed up with rivals stealing his candy formulas, fired everybody and closed the gates for good. Oddly, the factory keeps cranking out chocolate, apparently without employees. Grandpa Joe would give anything for another look inside the place.
He gets his chance when Willy Wonka offers to open his factory to the five children who find a golden ticket in one of his chocolate bars. However, since the Bucket family can only afford to buy Charlie one bar a year on his birthday, their chances of finding one are pretty slim.
Four of the tickets are quickly found by four kids who collectively had me considering a vasectomy. Agustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) is a tubby Teutonic glutton with a Wonka bar permanently fused in each hand. Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is a spoiled brat for whom instant gratification isn’t close to fast enough. Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) is a champion gum chewer with a Type Triple-A personality. Finally, Mike Teevee (Jordan Fry) is one of those over-stimulated kids who can beat Halo in an afternoon while simultaneously making you feel like a complete moron.
Sadly, Charlie’s birthday bar doesn’t have a ticket. Grandpa Joe hands over his last dollar to let Charlie buy another bar, but that one comes up empty, too. Then Charlie finds a dollar bill in the snow (strange, isn’t it, how Charlie’s family is English but they seem to use American money). Of course, the bar he buys with that money does contain the last golden ticket or else they’d have to roll end credits before seeing the inside of the chocolate factory. That would be kind of a bummer.
The day arives and the five kids, each with one parent in tow (Grandpa Joe in Charlie’s case), are let into the factory gates and greeted by Willa Wonka himself (Johnny Depp). Wonka is, well, odd. Very odd. Damned odd. Roger Ebert compared his look to Carol Burnett. I’d have to say that if Ms. Burnett and Ed Wood had a love child who was a sixties acid casualty, you’d have Willy Wonka. He’s a disconcerting bundle of inappropriate humor, parent-issues and obsessive compulsive tics. In the wake of the Michael Jackson molestation trial, those parallels are also a little too creepily obvious. In the real world, Willy Wonka would be a magnet for restraining orders.
I don’t think Burton and Depp made the right creative choice by making Wonka quite so “out there” but Depp’s impeccable comic timing and total commitment to the role saves them to some degree.
The inside of the factory is where Burton’s visual imagination gets to run wild and the wildly colorful and fanciful settings are a seamless blend of computer imagery and live-action. Wonka’s diminutive factory workers, the Oompa Loompas, all played by a digitally-cloned Deep Roy, break into visually stunning musical numbers every time one of the children’s character flaws leads them to a bad end.
Another interesting creative choice that may or may not be to your liking, was to give Willy Wonka a backstory in the form of an overly-strict dentist father, played by Christopher Lee. Come on, aren’t dentists scary enough without having Dracula, Saruman and Count Dooku play one? On the plus side, between Burton, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, Lee is getting almost as much work these days as Christopher Walken.
So, did I like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? I enjoyed it. It’s gorgeous to look at and the Bucket family is incredibly appealing and likeable. Johnny Depp’s, ahem, inventive take on Willy Wonka is certainly interesting, even if you have to fight the urge to wash your hands afterward.