CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

PG

-By Ethan Alter


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The only way to fully enjoy the new film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is to banish all memory of Mel Stuart's 1971 original from your mind. This isn't an easy proposition, at least for those of us who grew up with that film. With its beautifully designed sets, compulsively hummable tunes and Gene Wilder's indelible performance as the candyman Willy Wonka, Stuart's Factory has become an avowed family classic. It doesn't help that the new movie, directed by Tim Burton, contains several moments that are strongly reminiscent of the earlier version, beginning with a title sequence that gives us a peek at the Wonka factory assembly line. Although these two opening scenes are similar in content, they are also instructive examples of the directors' different visions. Where Stuart employed a gauzy montage of freshly made chocolate treats set to an instrumental medley of the film's songs, Burton conjures up a CGI-heavy look at the creation of a single Wonka bar that features the familiar musical stylings of his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman. If there were ever any doubt, scenes like this immediately clue you into the fact that you are watching a Tim Burton picture.

While Burton's fingerprints are all over this new Factory, his film actually hews closer to Roald Dahl's novel than Stuart's version did. Burton and screenwriter John August (who penned the director's last film, Big Fish) restore several elements that were deleted or changed in the earlier movie, including a Nut Room staffed by hyper-efficient squirrels and Wonka's trip to Loompaland to recruit the Oompa-Loompas that work in his factory. (Also, as in the book, no one breaks out into song except for these diminutive employees.) The titular young hero, Charlie Bucket, has been returned to his roots as well. In Stuart's version, Charlie was vaguely discontented with his lot in life, but the 21st-century Charlie (played by Freddie Highmore) is once again the affable, poverty-stricken youth we met in the book. He and his family of six-two parents plus four grandparents-live in a ramshackle house on the edge of town, right down the street from Wonka's factory. In the evenings, Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), who used to work for Wonka, regales his grandson with stories about the mysterious chocolatier.

One day, Wonka issues a surprise bulletin informing the world that he has enclosed special golden tickets in five of his chocolate bars. The five children who find these tickets will be treated to a private tour of his factory and be in the running to receive a very special prize. Because his family can only afford to give him one chocolate bar a year, Charlie has zero expectations of being one of the lucky winners and his hopes grow dimmer as each ticket is quickly snatched up. But a stroke of luck allows him to buy one last bar, which happens to contain the fifth and final golden ticket. So with Grandpa Joe in tow, Charlie heads off to the factory to meet the one and only Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp).

Visually, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pure Burton. The Bucket household looks like it belongs next door to Edward Scissorhands' castle, and the Gotham City-esque factory is filled with wonderfully odd rooms, like the one in which Oompa-Loompas can be glimpsed whipping a cow. (Why? To make whipped cream, of course!) But those expecting a darker take on the material will be severely disappointed. There's nothing here that approaches the infamous river-boat sequence in the '71 version, where Wilder's Wonka led his young charges on a white-knuckle ride through a dark tunnel while gruesome images played out on giant screens behind them. That scene gave an entire generation of kids nightmares, just as many of Burton's earlier films did. In the past decade, though, the director has steadily reined in his dark imagination. In films like Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes, (the official nadir of his career), he struggled to balance his vision with the demands of blockbuster moviemaking, with the latter side often winning out. Factory isn't as blandly impersonal as Apes, but it still feels like Burton is keeping his impulses in check in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Ultimately, what makes the movie work is Depp's terrific performance. His Wonka is essentially another variation on the man-child persona he and Burton have steadily developed over four movies together, but the actor adds a new layer of coldness and even cruelty to the role. In its one major departure from the book, the movie features a subplot set during Wonka's childhood when the young Willy defies the stern orders of his dentist father (played by Christopher Lee) and starts eating candy on the sly. When the elder Wonka discovers the truth, he promptly abandons his son, leaving him an eccentric wreck who can't even say the word "parent." On paper, this storyline sounds absolutely dreadful, but Depp and Lee invest it with real feeling.
Burton also did a great job casting the child actors; Highmore is as adorable here as he was in Finding Neverland (don't be surprised when he and Dakota Fanning become Hollywood's next power couple...after they hit puberty, of course) and the other kids fit their parts perfectly. Less successful are the Oompa-Loompas, who are all portrayed by the same actor, Deep Roy. Roy himself is fine, but the special-effects team never seems to have decided on an exact height scale for the Oompa-Loompas-they keep changing size in every scene. In a way, that inattention to detail sums up the movie. There's a lot of cool stuff on display here, but it lacks the consistent creative vision-or, if you like, the pure imagination-of the original film.
-Ethan Alter


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