Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Movie Information

Score:

Genre: Fantasy
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy
Rated: PG

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

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

4 thoughts on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

  1. Steve

    Wow, you really got a lot more out of this movie than I did. The first time I saw it I really hated it. But I have an admitted sentimental attachment to the Gene Wilder version – I grew up with it, and with the books. I generally like Burton’s work, but I usually have to watch it more than once to warm up to it.

    After I got over the feeling that someone had put a mohawk on my beloved old teddy bear, I watched it again. This version was closer to the book than the Wilder version. I liked the family better, and I liked Burton’s twist on them. They were pretty saccharine and one-dimensional in the first film.

    I even liked the oompa loompas, although I can understand why some people were offended by them.

    Where we diverge completely is in Depp’s performance. Thank you for explaining what Burton might have been thinking, because I spent a lot of that second watching scratching my head, trying to figure out what the hell he was thinking. I knew Depp was talented, and that he had to be doing what Burton wanted. The more I watch the movie, the more jarring, uncomfortable and out-of-sync the depiction becomes. And that just isn’t part of the story. In the book Wonka is a creative genius who shuts himself away because his ideas are being stolen – that’s why he can’t trust people.

    Depp’s performance, to me, seemed to be quirky for the sake of quirkiness, and too Michael Jackson-esque. It felt like an experiment that didn’t work, and was then justified with a hastily written-in backstory. Wonka’s character in the book was a lovable eccentric. To turn that character into a strange creepy guy with a hint of paedophilia just seems wrong. I don’t think Dahl would have been pleased.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Depp’s performance, to me, seemed to be quirky for the sake of quirkiness, and too Michael Jackson-esque. It felt like an experiment that didn’t work, and was then justified with a hastily written-in backstory. Wonka’s character in the book was a lovable eccentric. To turn that character into a strange creepy guy with a hint of paedophilia just seems wrong.

    Well, to be honest with you, if you take out the notion that he’s meant to evoke Michael Jackson — which never even occurred to me — I’m not sure where you’re getting pedophilia. This may be a generational thing, since I’ve noticed that people for whom Jackson is a youthful pop icon (other than as a kid in the Jackson Five) latch on to this Jackson comparison. I can see where it comes from, but does it match the British Invasion acid-flashback tone of the movie? I’d say not really. To me Wonka is a stoned-out rocker from the 1960s, not Michael Jackson.

    I don’t think Dahl would have been pleased.

    Apart from the fact that this is Burton’s film and not Dahl’s book, it’s as well to remember that Dahl wasn’t pleased with the earlier version either. Moreover, apart from the very ending of the old version, its Wonka could hardly be described as a “lovable eccentric.” Wilder’s Wonka is downright sinister.

  3. Steve

    ‘Well, to be honest with you, if you take out the notion that he’s meant to evoke Michael Jackson—which never even occurred to me—I’m not sure where you’re getting pedophilia.’

    Depp has admitted in interviews that Jackson was part of the inspiration for the look of the character (the white skin, etc). I guess I can see that – a wildly famous man who lives in isolation, etc. I guess I infer the pedophilia, because a pedophile would presumably be fixated by children, not have distaste for them. Unless he was covering up.

    ‘To me Wonka is a stoned-out rocker from the 1960s, not Michael Jackson.’

    I don’t see where you’re getting that, except from the music and maybe his clothes. He was repressed, anal, and just generally weird through the whole movie. He seemed more like a less entertaining Pee-Wee Herman who would wear his pajamas buttoned up to the neck to me. And the disturbing child-man thing worked for Paul Reubens, but the sexual ambiguity did make you uncomfortable. That feel of being sexually arrested reminded me of Pee-Wee as well.

    ‘Wonka could hardly be described as a “lovable eccentric.” Wilder’s Wonka is downright sinister.’

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree on that one. But I have an admitted bias towards the old version. I didn’t feel the sense of menace from Wilder’s Wonka that I did from Depp’s, but that’s a personal reflection.

    BTW, I meant to also say that I liked Carter in this, and I usually don’t care for her (remember the great Mrs. Lovitz debate?). I agree wth you about her making the perfect Bellatrix Lestrange though.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I don’t see where you’re getting that, except from the music and maybe his clothes.

    Well, the clothes definitely — look at the Beatles, the Moody Blues, Marc Bolan from the late-mid 60s — and the page-boy hair (definitely not Michael Jackson), and the references to drugs and drug flashbacks. All that says burnt-out 60s rocker to me.

    Now, I’m not saying that Depp’s Wonka isn’t menacing — only that so is Wilder’s. I’d also not say that this is a bad thing in either case. In fact, the sinister quality of Wilder is all that makes the old movie even watchable to me.

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