Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is enough to make any fan of Roald Dahl’s most beloved novel cry — with delight at all the film gets so magically right, and with frustration that in spite of that the film is still nearly ruined by Burton’s obsessions and a spectacularly miscalculated performance by star Johnny Depp.
No one but Burton could possibly have so perfectly nailed Dahl’s blend of whimsical fantasy and withering comeuppance, or the Dickensian glee and extravagance of its morality-play tableau, with abject poverty and decency lavishly rewarded while excess and surfeit and decadence are mercilessly punished.
And no one but Burton could possibly have thought it would be a good idea to give candymaker extraordinaire Willy Wonka (Depp) unresolved issues from childhood stemming from a traumatic relationship with his dentist father (Christopher Lee!), leaving Wonka unable to say the words "family" or "parents," and subject to disorienting childhood flashbacks. When the book’s climax and denouement have played out, and the credits should be rolling any minute now, and the film suddenly invents additional obstacles to delay the hero’s reward, then cuts to a scene with the other most prominent character on a psychiatrist’s couch, can there be any doubt that the film has gone off the rails?
And who on earth thought it was a good idea to have Depp play Willy Wonka with deathly pale-grey makeup framed by a black bob? Did anybody but Depp himself think that his portrayal of Wonka as an emotionally stunted, antisocial misfit with a chilly nervous giggle, who delivers lines like "Let’s boogey" and "You’re really weird" as if coining new catchphrases, was an improvement over Dahl’s character? As badly as Gene Wilder botched the role in 1971, this is worse.
Yet take out Wonka, and what’s left is little short of brilliant, far outstripping the 1971 film. From young Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore, fresh from his last collaboration with Depp, Finding Neverland), his extended family, and their crazy ramshackle house, to the wonders of Wonka’s factory, including the Oompa-Loompas and their zany musical numbers, to the over-the-top rottenness of the other four children (and for the most part their parents), this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is both faithful and inspired, true both to the spirit and the letter of the book even as it goes beyond it in ways. It’s so good, it has the makings of a modern family classic, the dark childhood fantasy that all the Harry Potter films and Lemony Snicket are trying to be.
And yet at the center of it all is one of the best actors in Hollywood working as hard as he can to ruin the film, aided and abetted by tacked-on excursions into yet another cinematic rehashing of Tim Burton’s father figure issues (cf. Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands).
For those who haven’t read the book, allow me to introduce you to a character you won’t meet in either film: Mr. Willy Wonka. As Dahl introduces him, we learn of "marvelously bright" eyes "twinkling and sparkling at you all the time" in a face "alight with fun and laughter." Dahl rhapsodizes about "how clever he looked," how "quick and sharp and full of life," in his movements "like a quick, clever old squirrel at the park." On seeing the children, he does a "funny skipping dance" and calls out to them in a "high flutey voice." He’s delighted to meet them all — and their parents — and "clearly just as excited as everyone else."
He looks and behaves, in fact, like a slender, hyperactively excitable Santa Claus proudly welcoming visitors to a North Pole workshop of candy rather than toys. For some inexplicable reason, it’s a characterization neither film version to date comes within a million miles of.
Wilder’s Wonka was almost the polar opposite of Dahl’s creation, low-key and darkly ironic. Depp, on the other hand, takes the character in a direction at right angles to both Dahl’s and Wilder’s versions. Dahl’s Wonka was genuinely friendly; Wilder’s Wonka at least knew how to fake it. Depp’s character not only doesn’t try, he wouldn’t even know how to. In fact, he’s so socially dysfunctional, he has no clue how to make a speech of welcome or respond to basic questions without a stack of note cards from which he reads as mechanically as a first grader sounding out Dr. Seuss.
It’s ironic that where the 1971 film was called Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, this one takes the name of the original book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even though the climax of the story the filmmakers wish to tell is no longer Charlie’s moral triumph or crowning reward, but Willy Wonka’s emotional healing and life lessons learned about the real meaning of family.
On one level, of course, only fans of the book will be bothered by the film’s radical reconstruction of the character — though it’s a crying shame that the film bothers to be so brilliantly true to the book in almost every other way, only to subvert it so thoroughly in this one crucial respect. Yet will anyone, even newcomers to the story, find this Willy Wonka engaging, interesting, or an any way appealing? Are Wonka’s childhood issues really of interest to anyone but Burton and Depp?
Although the creep factor of Depp’s Wonka is real, the effect is somewhat exaggerated by external factors, including timing and Depp’s previous choices. As Roger Ebert astutely observes, that Depp has acknowleged that his performance in Pirates of the Caribbean was largely inspired by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has primed us to look for inspirations here as well.
And, as it happens, recent events make it nearly impossible, watching this film, not to think of another emotionally stunted, reclusive millionaire child-man with pale skin and black hair who built a fantasy wonderland for himself and then invited children into it. The "Neverland" connection of Depp’s last film, in which he played yet another emotionally stunted child-man who created fantasy worlds — and was explicitly suspected of pedophilia — doesn’t help matters. Yet there’s no hint in Depp’s brittle performance of Michael Jackson’s mannerisms or speech patterns.
And the rest of the film is good enough that it’s worth gritting one’s teeth and looking past Willy Wonka. From the hypercompetitiveness of Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie) — and of her ex-cheerleader mother, who competes vicariously through her daughter — to the aggressive, impatient computer-game mentality of video junkie Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), the film’s cautionary satire hits bullseyes.
The casting — again, Depp aside — is perfect. Old David Kelly (Waking Ned Devine) is note-perfect as Grandpa Joe, and Indian actor Deep Roy (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) brings solemn dignity to the role of all 100 Oompa-Loompas, whose show-stopping musical numbers, composed by longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman to lyrics drawn (unlike those of the "Oompa Loompa Song" of the earlier film) straight from Dahl, made me want to stand up and cheer. If only the camera didn’t keep coming back to Depp every time the music winds down.
Along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The 10,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Willy Wonka illustrates the distinct possibility of telling a fairy-tale like story about a child transported to a fantasy wonderland, with brightly costumed little people singing and dancing and strange dangers to be negotiated, yet winding up with a film that is more a fond tribute to "pure imagination" than a triumph of it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.