There’s more manic invention, creativity and the sheer joy of filmmaking in any five minutes of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than has yet been seen in all the mainstream releases of 2005 put together.
The film is not going to be to everyone’s liking — and thank God for that, because a film that’s to everyone’s liking is, by its very nature, bound to be free of much in the way of risks. And Charlie is nothing if not risk-taking.
I remember reading a basically negative review of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds where the writer remarked that it was probably impossible for Spielberg to make a truly bad movie. It’s an arguable statement that I think was meant as a kind of praise, but it strikes me as an assessment of a filmmaker who long ago gave up taking any risks at all.
Happily, Burton seems to have sidestepped this pitfall — though it was a close call when he opted to prove he could make a “normal” movie with Planet of the Apes. Of course, remaking a move-loved classic — including Charlie and Apes — was a risk in itself.
Few seem to remember now that the original was a huge flop that was rescued from oblivion by TV and the late-night stoner crowd (and, frankly, apart from Gene Wilder’s performance, it isn’t much of a movie). In any case, Burton hasn’t so much remade the 1971 film as he’s put his personal spin on the source book by Roald Dahl — and the results are phenomenal.
If ever a filmmaker was suited to his material, Burton is to this. The material, in fact, seems like a Tim Burton picture just waiting to be made — and in collaboration with two of Burton’s most remarkable co-conspirators, Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman.
From start to finish, this is a Burton film — with everything that implies, and then some. It’s the “and then some” that pushes his new film into greatness, instead of the movie just being an exercise in Burtonism. Charlie follows the pattern of virtually Burton’s entire filmography, even to the point of referencing his earlier films. The opening credits, for instance, are in a style that can only be called typical Burton, while the workings of the chocolate factory beneath those credits evoke the Inventor’s cookie machine in Edward Scissorhands. Moreover, the factory itself — perched above the town as a brooding place of mystery — inevitably recalls the Inventor’s improbable castle at the end of a suburban street.
Similarly, the new film’s setting continues the director’s love affair with snow — and his final image even jokingly references that this is more an aesthetic romance than a genuine fondness for the powdery white stuff. But there’s more here than a Burton’s Greatest Hits package. It’s not that Burton departs from himself in Charlie — he expands.
There’s not much in his previous work to suggest that Burton would make a film that plays like a combination of fairy tale, British Invasion flick and particularly twisted Busby Berkeley musical, but that’s what he’s made here. Which makes sense: Burton is exactly the right age to have been fueled by the pop-art culture referenced here, including Berkeley’s work, which underwent a major revival in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Typically, Burton doesn’t reproduce the things he evokes, but fashions his take based more on his memory of them than on simple reality. This helps Burton capture the freshness that was so a part of the era in which Dahl’s work first appeared, and which now feeds the director’s vision of Dahl’s book. But instead of aping the pop culture of that time, Burton has created what feels like the greatest British Invasion flick never made — and his star and composer seem perfectly in tune with him.
Depp’s Willy Wonka, with his pageboy hair and velvet coat, looks for all the world like a disaffected ’60s-era rock star. His Wonka is a startling (some say frightening) creation, wandering through his private world of personal pleasures in a perpetual haze. (The script’s references to “grass” and “flashbacks” are hardly accidental.) But he’s more than a vaguely burnt-out rocker; he’s also the Burton misfit of so many movies. As such, he’s from that world, but not really of it.
Willy Wonka is also an extension of Burton’s take on childhood. The character is similar to other Burton heroes in that he has father issues, yet differs in that he cannot relate to, doesn’t understand and doesn’t even like children. This may seem odd in view of Burton’s ability to empathize with the seriousness (to a child) of childhood, but why would you expect a man whose view of childhood is — to put it mildly — rather bleak to identify with its more “normal” inhabitants? The answer, of course, is that you wouldn’t. You’d expect him to be awkward, to distance himself, to not really like them — and perhaps be jealous of them. And that’s exactly what Depp and Burton give us.
In keeping with the Invasion-picture tone, we also have Danny Elfman’s score — and more importantly, his songs, which not only evoke the ’60s, but Elfman’s own work with Oingo Boingo. Despite Elfman’s altered vocals, his songs here sound like his own earlier rock music, which was always much influenced by a Brit Invasion sensibility. In a sense, Elfman here returns to his roots, and something similar can be said of Burton.
Not only is the director evoking something of his childhood, but Charlie is also a film that calls to mind, more than anything else, the wild energy and cheeky Day-Glo colors of Burton’s first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The result is a brilliant synthesis of Burton’s work to date that also manages to break new ground in such a way that it makes you anxious to see where he will go next.
If you can ask for more from a movie than that, then you’re more demanding than I am. Rated PG for quirky situations, action and mild language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke