Charlie and the Chocalate Factory

dir: Tim Burton
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When I heard the film was going to be remade, I had a sick feeling in my gut. When I heard Tim Burton would be the one helming it, that sick feeling grew to full blown, explosive nausea.

Maybe it was the hangover, maybe it was the dodgy curry. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. But I can say that see the finished product was a decent cure.

It is a good film. It’s not great, but then having seen the original a few weeks ago as well, neither is that one. Johnny Depp is no Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but then again clearly no-one wanted him to be.

Instead of going down the track of trying to replicate that experience, Burton has done to this what he mercilessly did to Planet of the Apes: he’s “re-imagined” the character of Willy Wonka. Instead of being a mysterious Wizard of Oz type, eccentric aristocratic figure such as in the book and (to a lesser extent) in the first film, here Wonka is just an out-and-out freak.

Much has been made in the press of the idea that Wonka as played by the deathless and ageless Depp is reminiscent of Michael Jackson and Peter Lorre (the bug-eyed German actor from such classics as M, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon). There’s none of the former and more of the latter, in my estimation.

Depp does play Wonka as a freak, someone with no social skills, who hasn’t progressed beyond the oral stage of development, or puberty, for that matter, and who is a chocolate maker who hates his primary market: children. The kids in the film, naturally all loathsome except for Charlie (Freddie Highmore), all clearly hate Wonka as well. They are there out of greed and have nothing but sneers and contempt for Wonka.

And so they should. If you saw this guy offering your kid any candy, you’d beat him to death with the nearest Oompa Loompa. There is a significant story-based reason why such a difference has been made in the script.

It’s because he doesn’t have a loving family, you see. Orphans, hearken to Tim Burton’s word. He is here to heal the pain.

To some, giving Wonka more motivation and backstory to explain his eccentricities and livelihood might be akin to blasphemy prompting Roald Dahl to piss and moan in his grave in between some lacklustre spinning, but for me it worked. As much as it needed to; it’s hardly a deep character study.

No, for a film costing allegedly $200 million dollars to make, it’s about the visuals. Charlie is still Charlie, thankfully. Whilst everything and everyone else seems to be solidly entrenched in the current era, Charlie, his parents and his four grandparents are resolutely from somewhere in London during World War II. Their clothes, their creaky home and everything about them down to their values and grimy cotton socks would make Winston Churchill tear up. The irony is that they seem more anachronistic than Willy Wonka and his factory do.

As such, since Charlie is our wholesome hero, everything he does and says is so golly-gee-willikers that it would be sick inducing had the role been played by anyone else. But Freddie Highmore, slumming in the role, is way better than that.

Anyone who endured Finding Neverland, a recent film about the playwright J.M. Barrie and his virtually unknown story Peter Pan, knows that Freddie, as one of the children in the film, acted Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and Julie Christie off the screen. He can’t be just a child, he must be some acting legend reincarnated in the form of a little person. The maturity he brought to that role isn’t eclipsed here, but he does solid work all the same. When people talk about the kids in that Harry Potter film movie franchise as actors, in comparison to someone like Freddie, I just have to chuckle.

Are there people who don’t know the story? I guess there’s a chance that a few people from a non-Anglo background who grew up in Tanzania or Ulan Bator may not be familiar with it, so here’s a quick précis: rich man runs chocolate factory, and after years of solitude gives five children around the world the chance to win a ticket to see what it’s all about.

All the other children are spoiled, indulged, rich or all three. Charlie is poor and therefore a decent young fellow with the right values, morals and underpants. Damn these Marxist parables!

Over the course of their journey through Wonka’s factory, they see magical and wondrous sights, but the rotten children are undone by their very natures, until the story reaches its inevitable but insane conclusion.

Much of the visual stuff is CGI, but a greater proportion is very elaborate and very expensive-looking sets. The chocolate waterfall and river / Preparation Room looks so impressive I bet that bit alone cost more to construct than they spent on the entirety of the original film.

The nut sorting room with the multitude of squirrels is a particular favourite of mine, and they do it very impressively in this version, much better than the other one which looked like it was constructed from tinsel and papier mache with sock puppets.

But it’s not a competition. Both films have faults, both films have virtues. The only real bad thing about the original is how crappy it looks. The problem with the new version is that Johnny Depp’s performance is too kooky and almost too annoying, and therefore distracts from the story. The kids are loathsome, but they’re supposed to be, we wouldn’t want it any other way. They only exist in the book as well as archetypes of bad child behaviour and parental neglect.

To get back to the Marxist aspect of the story, Wonka, losing his secret recipes to industrial espionage through his workers, fires them all, and replaces them with Oompa Loompas (all played by the delightfully named Deep Roy). They all work for beans, literally. Talk about slave labour, someone should call down the International Labor Organisation on this guy’s arse.

The Oompa Loompas don’t care, since being the happy little proles pacified by the opiate that is the cocoa bean, and they willingly carry out Wonka’s evil bidding. They also prepare ironic and insane musical numbers to top of the end of each kid’s stay in the factory.

They don’t repeat or redo the “Oompa, Loompa, Doopity Doo, If You Don’t Listen This Will Happen to You” songs from the first film in exactly the same way, but they do put on some elaborate and clearly insane musical numbers. They’re quite demented and funny.

One of my favourite lines in the film is where after watching one of these numbers, venerable British actor James Fox says in a disbelieving voice, “It seemed awfully rehearsed”, which almost breaks the fourth wall letting us know how insane such a situation would be in anything other than a fantasy film.

Wonka of course demurs and, making excuses like a Nationals Senator from Queensland, claims that it’s all improvised.

Hmm, sure it is.

A few of these touches add instead of detract from the experience, though I’m sure the variations will drive many in a fury of dogmatic rage. There are a few other changes which many might miss (the Slugworth character trying to get the kids to smuggle out the Eternal Gobstoppers, the visit to the Lemonade room), but they don’t matter that much in the scheme of things.

I liked it. It’s not going to replace my memories of the book or the original film, but I don’t hate it. I think Roald Dahl would have liked it. It keeps enough of the dark elements from his original work to be recognisably Dahl through the filter of Burton.

Tim Burton does an okay job for once. I haven’t thought much of his recent movies yet, but I do think he is mellowing in his old age, and this isn’t too bad a place for him to be. It makes me look forward to seeing his return to stop motion animation with The Corpse Bride which should be coming out soon.

He has been a decent fantasist behind the camera for most of his career; it’s just that telling a story is what he seems to have most difficulty with.

7 times I would have wanted to drown those other four kids in a hessian sack filled with rocks in a chocolate river out of 10

"Everything in this room is eatable, even *I'm* eatable! But that is called "cannibalism," my dear children, and is in fact frowned upon in most societies." - you're so modest, Johnny, though you're right, you are so Oedipal - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)