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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Reviewed by Andrew Kozma, Laura Eldred, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Tim Burton (director)
Genre:   Creepy Children's Fantasy
Released:   July 15, 2005
Review Date:   July 23, 2005
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

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 matters?

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 eye candy.

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) cake.

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.

RevSF Assistant Film Editor Andrew Kozma and RevSF contributor Laura Eldred are white chocolate squares wrapped in an edible gold foil cover and filled with blended pecans and tasty nougat.

 
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    Charlie or Willy?

    The original 1971 film was called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (instead of the book’s title, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) because it was designed as a promotional vehicle for a new candy bar by sponsor Quaker Oats, which they planned to name the “Wonka Bar.” But when they released the bar, it had an unfortunately low melting point and melted on store shelves. The candy bar was recalled — and it had been the whole reason the film was funded! Imagine that! That sure is funny!

     

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