Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Roald Dahl has a way with minutiae. He sees the teeniest pleasure for its universal wit, some essential candy floss that binds and surrounds all living things. He speaks in long, crunchy sentences, never daunting, the Ferrero Rocher of children’s stories. Who do we know, that speaks in the same waggish takes but in film, the corollary in visual language of Dahl’s sublime wit, who can take a still frame and see its natural hilarity and the most miniscule banality for some far-reaching, yet humane poetry? Tim Burton? Not quite.

Wes Anderson could have directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His adaptation of Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox only proves what I had sensed for years, that there is a shared magic between these two, a natural comedy at our expense, that would only offend if it stopped being so darn charming for a second. Burton isn’t a bad choice. The infusion of expressionism does some good to the story’s inherently creepy awe, as does Burton’s entourage of pets (among them, Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman his favorites, and Helena Bonham Carter, who keeps working for him despite the long history). The problem with Burton is that while he has this seething awkwardness that can make a fool of the adult world, with children he seems just plain creepy. He can make a normal detail of daily life seem absurd, but not humanely significant. He cares less about epic drama than about loving his toys, playing with computers and set design, and doing the most awkward thing in the room, not for a laugh, but for a squirm. Sound like anyone?

Anderson could have made the movie as Dahl would. Burton makes it like he’s actually Willy Wonka.

The trick with Wonka was that you never knew if he was in control or not, serious or not, crazy or super-sane. I like to judge a film on its own merits and not obsess over comparing it to other versions, but the difference here is too stark to ignore: Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka. Depp’s oddball Michael Jackson impersonation never achieves the same eerie uncertainty, an odd discovery given that the new version seems to pride itself in replacing musical camp with veiled horror. “Is the grisly reaper mowing,” the original Wonka asks, “They’re certainly not showing/ Any signs that they are slowing.” He said this during his wondrous boat ride as a Technicolor hurricane bombarded the screen, among its images a close-up on a spider’s eyes as it pulls the skin off a fly. In the Burton version, the boat is rollercoaster-fast, the music is epic as they pass some of Wonka’s wonky exhibits, but there is no lasting wonderment or sneaky nightmare in a film that was always about more than candy. “It’s the most important invention in the history of the world,” Mike Teevee tells Wonka, “And all you think about is chocolate.” He could have been talking to Burton himself, who seems to obsess over the candy in a story about age, regrets, innocence, and imagination.

There are flashbacks, for instance, of Wonka’s journey to Loompa-Land to recruit his tiny workers (all played by Deep Roy) and of his childhood as the boy imprisoned in braces that every kid who goes to the dentist imagines himself to be. In the original Willy Wonka, Wonka’s stories seemed sarcastic and parabolic, more real to him than real, like when Dan Akroyd talks about positrons in Ghostbusters. By actually showing the stories, Burton gets knee-deep in their literal reality, spoiling the arcane mystery that Wilder oozed from every knowing grin. The proton packs contain more mysterious power when we don’t see how they were built. The same goes for chocolate. Depp’s Wonka really doesn’t seem like he knows what he’s doing.

One note on the Oompa-Loompas, those pint-sized migrant workers slaving in the underbelly of the toffee furnaces and behind the chocolate waterfalls: Burton makes them annoying. Deep Roy lipping so out of sync with the music, the computer-generated antics of each weird pop number (one has them imitating Kiss and The Beatles, another engaging in a synchronized swimming act) unsettle me in the wrong way. It feels like intercutting Ed Wood with five minutes of those yellow jerks from Despicable Me. Not that the original Loompas were magical, but while the new ones are exhaustingly unfunny, the originals at least never tried to be.

Freddie Highmore makes Charlie Bucket much more likeable than he was in the first film. Grandpa (David Kelly) too seems more genuine (though I still can’t escape a pang of empathy for Mrs. Bucket when the old wanker jumps out of bed after being waited on for two decades, because chocolate is at stake). If I’m being fair to Depp, he has something in his own right which is like the secret hilarity of a smart class clown, when bombarded by the false affections of these snobs that make him look genuinely bubble-burst as he recoils from a handshake like a girl who accidentally kissed her brother. Everyone else, excepting the underused Bucket parents (Carter and Noah Taylor) and the surprising presence of looming Christopher Lee as Mr. Wilbur Wonka, are serviceable as the archetypes you expect if you know anything of human blueberries, nut-sorting, and television teleportation. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’re just a silly goose for reading this far in the first place, aren’t you.

Dahl said once, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” I believe he was wrong. Those who do believe in magic will never need to find it. It exists suspended on the gleam of chocolate in the eye of any child, that mini-Christmas brought to you by Nestle or Godiva or even Willy Wonka. Less provocative than the original perhaps but worthy of its sets and that wintry feeling of a tall tale long untold, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory earns the Burton name, even if it doesn’t quite earn Dahl’s. It’s not a deep-hued dark truffle, but a creamy milk bar with crispy rice flecks of style, tasty but so not arousing. I enjoyed it, but felt like brushing my teeth afterwards.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Tim Burton

John August (screenplay)

Roald Dahl (book)

Willy Wonka Johnny Depp
Charlie Bucket Freddie Highmore
Grandpa Joe David Kelly
Mrs. Bucket Helena Bonham Carter
Mr. Bucket Noah Taylor
Oompa-Loompas Deep Roy
Dr. Wilbur Wonka Christopher Lee

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