Tim Burton, don’t you think maybe it’s time you get past your daddy issues? I thought that Big Fish was going to be the end of them for sure – the film was like a colon cleansing for coming to terms with your pops. But one of the big additions Burton makes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his take on the Roald Dahl book which was previously adapted as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, is adding a back story for Willy that involves an overbearing dad who – you guessed it – doesn’t understand his son’s creativity.
For those familiar with the previous film (and not with the book – I have never read it), Charlie contains little that’s really different. I had heard a lot about how this version was going to be more faithful to Dahl, but I have to say that I didn’t see a ton of differences in the basic story and characters.
Burton, of course, brings his unique visual style, and Depp’s take on Wonka is radically different from Gene Wilder. Otherwise there’s plenty that’s familiar – Charlie Buckets is a poor young boy who loves Willy Wonka’s chocolates more than pretty much anything else (it’s a good thing his family can only afford to buy him one bar a year, otherwise he would end up like the big fat kid Augustus Gloop). When the reclusive Wonka hides five golden tickets in bars of his chocolate, which entitle the bearer to a one day tour of his massive and mysterious factory, Charlie and four other totally rotten children find themselves inside the sanctum sanctorum of sweets, getting knocked off one after another.
To me the biggest difference here is the gap between Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. Wilder’s Wonka was a dangerous man, a sinister and strange figure who seemed not so much to be testing the children as punishing them. Depp’s Wonka is a manchild who is uncomfortable with touching or affection, and whose understanding of the world and human interaction is stunted. He’s creepy but in a different way – everyone is throwing around Michael Jackson in regards to this performance, but the comparison works at least as far as the guy who won’t grow up and who just doesn’t fit in with our world at all.
Burton goes to great lengths to establish just why Wonka is like that. His dad is Christopher Lee (honestly, that would have been enough. Show me Lee as the dad and I can fill in the rest of the blanks), a renowned dentist who keeps his son in the most ridiculous set of braces and denies him any sweets. But one Halloween wee Willy Wonka finds a piece of chocolate, eats it, and has the world opened to him.
The forbidden candy here could be anything, but since Wonka’s been so forcibly recast in the image of Tim Burton (he’s like the Edward Scissorhands of candy), it’s tough not to see the candy as anything but the sort of creature features that Lee starred in, which helped break the young Burton out of his cookie cutter suburban life (by the way, Burton may need to stop the daddy issue movies just because his pool of horror movie greats is being drained by the Grim Reaper. At this rate, Bruce Campbell is going to be playing Johnny Depp’s dad soon).
I can’t deny that Burton’s auterial preoccupations get on my nerves, but luckily he has placed them inside a fairly delightful film. Burton’s made a kid’s film told from a kid’s point of view, where stereotypes aren’t about reductionism or being hurtful but about the limited scope of a child’s understanding. The first section of the film, with Charlie and his family barely scraping by, is a fairy tale come alive. It’s also the only part of the movie with any real heart – the love that the Bucket family has is sweet and understandable.
When the film moves into the Chocolate Factory, Burton opens up. Previously the film had been stuck in a squalid industrial town (is industrial-gothic a style? If not, Burton’s invented it) and some suburban locales as we meet the various winners, but the Factory is a fantasyland, ideal for Burton’s twisted style and imagination.
He lets loose, and Chocolate Factory might be the most fun Burton film I can think of. He directs with a light touch, drawing us to jokes (there are tons) but not flaunting them. Depp is in perfect sync with him – it’s like he wasn’t able to go quite far enough with Pirates of the Caribbean and he spreads his silly wings here. He’s obviously having a blast and it’s infectious – I had a smile on my face for most of the film’s running time.
The film is almost a musical, and the songs, sung by the Oompa Loompas, are shot with energy. Some of the songs are great – the one after Mike Teevee gets offed, for instance, and an electroclash influenced song for another – but some of them are ponderous. It’s a mixed bag, and I had hoped for more from Danny Elfman. (By the way, speaking of music, this film includes a quick appearance by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which sort of made my head spin)
While we’re talking Oompa Loompas, there are two things that must be mentioned. First is that Deep Roy, who plays all the tint people, is magnificent. He gives a brilliant and hilarious deadpan performance as the Oompa Loompas take on almost any guise. He’s really the gem of the film.
On the other hand the whole Oompa Loompa situation has become weird. In Wilder’s film they were little orange imps of unknown origin (and what did it really matter in a place where chocolate flowed as river?), but in the original book and here they are a savage tribe who Wonka has essentially indentured into slavery, all because of their love of the cocoa bean. That whole bit of back story put me in a weird place – it’s almost completely racist as presented. Some people will claim that the Oompa Loompas have it better in the factory, and the film goes out of its way to make that point, but the whole idea of a primitive tribe living in a factory for, literally, beans makes me uneasy. Oddly I feel this would have worked better with Wilder’s more menacing Wonka – Depp’s Wonka seems too sweetly naïve to have lured these guys in, but it’s pretty much established that he knows he has the very best end of the deal.
What’s perhaps oddest about the film is that it completely lacks heart. It’s sweet at parts, and it’s fun almost the whole way through, but the flashbacks to the young Willy (they come a number of times) just don’t work, and so since the emotional framework has been shifted from Charlie’s dreams being realized (the ending of the original can still choke me up) to Willy Wonka’s coming to terms with his dad, the general finale left me cold. I just didn’t care about Willy finding his father. Heck, I was more invested in the parents of the rotten children – they were obviously bad parents but their faults didn’t include a lack of love (although that’s the same story for Willy, he just couldn’t understand it).
Overall, though, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a delectable confection. It’s not filling but it’s great while it lasts. For the last few years I’ve been thinking that maybe Burton’s time had passed, as he kept making movies that just didn’t grab me. Charlie is his best work in a decade, and if it’s not as emotionally engaging as something like Edward Scissorhands, so be it.
8.5 out of 10