Andrew: Before we say anything, I just want you all out there to know
that Tim Burton’s new movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is
absolutely nothing like X-2. Just in case you were expecting any fancy
gymnastics, strange inventions, crazy-shaped people, plots to rule the world,
or mutants. They prefer the term midgets, I mean little people, I mean pygmies
Laura: You mean Oompa-Loompas.
Andrew: Yes, quite. Taken on its own terms, Charlie and the Chocolate
Factory may not have mutants, but it does have a highly original premise
of its own, involving chocolate.
Laura: “Taken on its own terms?” Really, Andrew! You can’t
take something on its own terms when it’s based on something else.
As most of you know — excluding Andrew, perhaps — Burton’s
film is a remake. There could be some confusion, however, as the titles are different.
Mel Stuart’s 1971 film was called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
instead of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was the
book’s title. (See informative factoid above. Or beside. Wherever the land
of the little factoids is.)
Andrew: Here’s a quick rundown: Charlie Bucket (a doe-eyed Freddie
Highmore) is poor, his family is poor, in fact they have barely any money for
food and, if Charlie’s lucky (which he usually is, on his birthday) he
gets one candy bar a year. Willy Wonka is rich, fabulously rich, and famously
secretive. One day he decides to invite five children to his factory for a tour
with one parent (in Charlie’s case it’s his Grandpa Joe, played
by David Kelly), Charlie ends up one of the lucky ones and, voila! end of story.
My story, at any rate. The movies and book go on for a bit.
And speaking of remakes, Laura, are the Oompa-Loompas remakes,
too? Are you telling me that the new OLs (for short — I think they prefer
it that way) are not only replacements drawn, as only the British Empire can
draw them, from some virgin part of the world and then exploited through factory
labor, but that all the original Wilder OLs were discarded like stale doughnuts?
Farkin’ colonial tendencies.
Laura: No, there are no semi-racist colonial forays in the ’71
film. The Oompa Loompas in that film were played by various midgets from across
Europe; the creators couldn’t find enough in Germany, so they took them
from all over, with the result that many of them didn’t speak English.
Burton’s chose to use one Oompa Loompa actor and digitally duplicate him,
thus avoiding a lot of gesticulation on set.
But I like the original Oompa Loompa songs much better. They had a clear moral
and were very easy to follow. I wasn’t sure where all these new songs
were going and couldn’t always follow the lyrics. Damn it, I want to be
able to sing along when I go to a film. And Depp’s Wonka doesn’t
sing at all, unlike Wilder’s Wonka. But I don’t know Depp’s
voice; this could be a real asset.
Andrew: I didn’t really mind the singing, although I agree with
the inability to sing along, mostly because the lyrics were hard to pick out
(so many Oompa-Loompa voices going at once). But, come on, once you realize
all those voices are Danny Elfman, you cannot help but be wowsered. The first
song is easily the best, because it’s unexpected, but it also plays more
with expectations than the others, calling up visions of '50s Hollywood musicals.
If they were populated by dumpy, somewhat unattractive clones.
Elfman’s songs and the OL clones bring out what is most successful about
this film: its cohesive vision. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is
a wonder of artistic conception, in John August’s script which translates
Roald Dahl’s vision of the world’s off-hand cruelty faithfully (if
not the story itself); in the visual style where Burton’s traditional
feel of fairy-taleness comes through with a (mostly) darker edge; and in Johnny
Depp’s interpretation of Willy Wonka. Don’t let the title fool you;
this movie is really about Willy Wonka and his growth as a character. In fact,
there are a number of flashbacks to Wonka’s earlier life that end up defining
him as the most well-known and understood character in the film, even with Charlie
Bucket as its ostensible center.
Though, really, that was probably the goal of the original book: the children
reading it put themselves in the place of Charlie (who is normal and unexceptional
in every way) who enters a world of magic (or magical technology) and imagination.
The focus always was on Wonka, but in Burton’s movie the movie ends up
being all about Wonka, with him competing for the role of central character.
You can blame that on Johnny Depp, if you wish, though he just makes the script’s
Wonka come alive with neuroses and such intensity that it’s hard to look
away. Even if he doesn’t sing.
Laura: Gene Wilder’s Wonka seems entirely different to me. One,
Wilder’s Wonka can’t match — who would put a purple jacket
with a brown hat? Depp’s Wonka has much better style; he also avoids the
bow tie. I really like Depp’s pointed leather boots; you can just stare
at those, let your mind drift, imagine Depp in polished black leather and shiny
buckles. . . .
Andrew: I think you’ve cut to Edward Scissorhands now.
Laura: Oops. My Depp fantasies usually do end up there. But actually
I think the differences are rather deeper than their style sense.
I think the main difference for me is that Wilder’s Wonka requires no
explanations. He just exists, and the film doesn’t feel the need to psychoanalyze
him. (Though there are subtle digs at psychoanalysis in both films.) He’s
totally historyless; there is no explanation offered for who Wonka is or why
he exists, what made him into a strange force of nature. And that’s exactly
what he seems to be — a sort of Dionysian god presiding over the world
of the film, creating magic and mischief and moving the film into a moral plane
that seems very rebellious, where the punishment for greed or bad manners might
well be a grisly death; a very Dantean universe really, with Gene Wilder’s
Wonka as its God.
This film loses all that. Depp’s portrayal of Wonka is nuanced. It’s
a great performance, filled with humor and depth, and so forth, and so on, ad
infinitum. But Depp’s Wonka is no Dionysian God — he’s instead
a very troubled, weird human being; and I think that this change really undercuts
the fairy tale element of the previous film. Because he has a history, and that
history serves as an explanation of who he is and why he’s weird, and
implicitly a way that he could be fixed. Fixed in both senses, really —
put back together, and, well, snip-snip. You can’t give a Dionysian god
a psychological explanation for his oddities.
I just realized that I may be coming across as anti-Johnny Depp. Nothing is
further from the truth. I lust after Johnny Depp with every fiber of my being.
I need to mention, however — for all the girls out there like me who lust
after well-dressed, slightly effeminate men (a niche that Depp often occupies
very well) — that this film is not Depp at his hottest, despite the apparent
promise of dressing him up in a velvet jacket, top hat, and pointy boots (such
is the stuff my dreams are made of). They’ve also though given him a terrible
haircut, weird teeth, and, I think, perhaps cheek implants? He looks a bit more
like his Ed Wood than his Edward Scissorhands or his Captain Jack Sparrow. His
acting is great, certainly, alternatively maliciously scheming and charmingly
naïve, and so forth. I am a big fan, really. But you shouldn’t go
to this film looking for a new vision of Depp to try to dress up your husband
as. Even though my husband’s a bit tired of the Edward Scissorhands get
up, and my haircut has suffered slightly, I’m not going to let him change
it for Willy Wonka anytime soon.
Andrew: I’m not sure that Depp’s hotness or lack
thereof spells doom for the film, regardless of all the suggestions that Depp’s
Wonka is a tad like Michael Jackson. Here, Wonka is supposed to be creepy, scary,
and unlikable. The only time he’s truly sympathetic is as a kid, and that’s
mostly because he’s so obviously tormented. Do you really think his attractiveness
Laura: No, but I do think there’s an odd correlation between
Depp’s relative hotness and the success of the film. I mean, Pirates
of the Caribbean might as well have been My Little Pony: The Film 2
without Captain Jack Sparrow shaking his sexually ambiguous booty across
the film floor.
The hotness question aside, Depp’s Wonka initially seems more dangerous
and perhaps sadistic than Wilder’s. There are suggestions that Wonka planned
all the children’s punishments — the parents and children accuse
the Oompa Loompas' songs of being pre-choreographed and written; they are suspicious
of Wonka’s claims of improvisation; and Wonka himself has an odd habit
of stepping back appraisingly, apparently in full knowledge of future events,
and watching them unfold.
Wilder’s Wonka is also rather unconcerned about the children, especially
Mike Teavee. Wilder watches him sprint to his demise with an emotionless and
quiet, “Stop. Don’t. Come back.” But Depp’s Wonka is
a bit darker even than that.
Andrew: The whole scenario of Wonka bringing in kids to torture, maim,
and punish them brings up a whole lot of questions that are never answered and
seem, well, simply not to make sense. Does Wonka hate kids? Does he hate kids
with parents and give Charlie special dispensation because he's accompanied
by his Grandpa Joe? Are we supposed to like Wonka?
Laura: This film actually partakes of a trend that I find a bit disturbing
in contemporary film — the urge to psychoanalyze any vision of monstrosity
or weirdness. You can’t have a slasher villain without the film (or at
least a sequel) going back to show the terrible childhood that led to his psychosis.
And I guess you can’t have anyone weird or eccentric without doing the
same thing. It’s very rational and reassuring to think that everyone who’s
psychotic or weird has a clear, psychological, my-sucky-family based rationale
for it, but it makes no room for anything or anyone that might just be evil
or weird. It ticks me off. I hereby call for films to offer less explanation!
Andrew: And more body parts.
Laura: Yes, I call for a little less plot and a lot more action! Preferably
dismemberment. Or Willy Wonka strutting around in a velvet coat without whining
about his dad.
But this film also feels the need to explain what happens to the kids after
the once the factory has “eaten” them, so to speak. They disappear
into chocolate rivers or incinerators, never to be heard from again. In the
world of the '71 film, it seems entirely likely that they’re dead, but
in this film the children are shown later exiting the factory with all their
pieces intact (though perhaps blue or rather taller than they were). The consequences
of bad behavior are thus less dire.
But there’s no leeway for a bit of rebellion in Burton’s film.
In the 1971 movie, Charlie and Uncle Joe do partake of some forbidden Wonka
products — they steal fizzy lifting drinks when no one’s watching,
and then sail around in the ceiling for a few minutes. Wonka finds out about
this, and initially denies Charlie the final prize, before an act of loyalty
(implicitly refusing to turn Wonka’s secrets over to Slugworth, a whole
subplot not in the new film) changes Wonka’s mind. The ’71 film
suggests a substantively good child can still have a couple rebellious moments
— perhaps, indeed, that is what childhood is about. You can’t be
good ALL the time. This film loses that. Charlie is good the entire time, and
that’s the only way he wins the final prize — by endless moral attentiveness
(or perhaps stupidity; Charlie isn’t terribly interesting in this film,
always just looking at stuff with big googly eyes a la the first Harry Potter
movie) and endless familial loyalty. This film is ultimately much more morally
conservative than the ’71 version, for all its flash and sparkle.
Though I don’t want to say that I don’t like the flash and sparkle.
The film is visually stunning, from the Dr. Seuss-inspired chocolate candyland
to the slightly airbrushed, digitized children, it’s a great piece of
Andrew: And this movie has some extremely hilarious parts
in it. It’s entertaining, delicious to the eye, and mighty tasty (if you
can get your hand on the actual film).
The only real disappointment I had with the film was the end, the last fifteen
minutes or so. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes a more staid
theme than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, that of family, rather
than experimentation, honesty, and responsibility. Charlie is ultimately a nebbish.
He’s rewarded for, well, not being argumentative, not disobeying the rules,
and (whether consciously or not) kissing up to the authority figure. Woo hoo.
That’s who I want to be when I grow down.
Who wants to be declared the winner just by being the last person standing,
without even having to go through any sort of trial? By the end, the conflict
is pretty much gone and since the prize was never really won, who cares what
happens next? Charlie surely doesn’t. It's just icing on the (spoiled)
Laura: I like the film a lot, but mainly because of the production
values, not what it does with the story. I think the ’71 version is a
brilliant fairy tale, and this film isn’t. If you can go see it in IMAX,
the extra money is certainly worth it — the wide screen made the movie
mesmerizing. The only thing better might have been two hours of Johnny Depp
prancing around naked.
Andrew: I can only hope that’s Tim Burton’s next project.