New take on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" not worth telling

by JD Warnock on July 15, 2005

in Print Reviews

If anyone else had tackled this remake of the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” they would certainly have screwed it up. They would have made ittoo saccharin sweet, misunderstood the point and created a vacant Joel Schumacher/Chris Columbus disaster that even the world’s most optimistic, happy go lucky, sing-a-dang-do would have gagged at. Instead, Tim Burton once again astonishes with a slightly cold, visually stunning and appropriately weird re-interpretation that takes you further into the history of Willy Wonka, making him the central character and keeping overt sentimentality at arms length to be used only when needed.

I kept asking myself why touch this story? With an iconic performance from Gene Wilder in the original and generations of people content as can be with it as the only necessary version, I wondered what Burton thought there was left to do. It was only in the last act of this new film that I realized why Burton’s vision of the story was worth telling. This movie tells the story of Willy Wonka, rather than from the vantage of Charlie Bucket. While Charlie (Freddie Highmore) remains the other central character, it’s the Wonka back-story and conflict that make it work and feel fresh.

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Tim Burton has a singular ability to create a world enough like our own to be believed, but so stylized that it couldn’t be mistaken for anyplace that has ever existed. “Edward Scissorhands” is a brilliant depiction of a hyper suburbia that is as much camp as it is a commentary on the absurdity of keeping up with the neighbors. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is no exception, Burton has one of the most recognizable and unique visions in film. He’s not without flaw (see “Planet of the Apes” for details), but he is certainly unlike any other director.

Paired as usual with the music of Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo) the music perfectly compliments the images on screen. The oompa-loompa songs however, are over-produced and for the most part lose the charm of the original songs. Updating the music and extending their length from the original end up distracting from the continuity of this film.

I also had major issues with the oompa-loompas themselves. Unlike the first film’s “orange skinned little people” Burton’s version uses just one small Indian man. This poor guy must have been put through the ringer, doing scenes over and over, and then through the magic of CGI, composited together to give the illusion of a race of people who all look identical. It is neither all that clever or effective it just seems unbelievable. And not in a good way.

The film stars Johnny Depp in the role of Willy Wonka, the quirky and reclusive chocolatier whose golden tickets promising a tour of his mysterious chocolate factory provide the framework for both films. I was sure Depp had gone too far in his performance from the stills and previews, but it worked completely. Depp portrays Wonka as a socially inept freak, unable to smoothly interact with society and nearly allergic to children. Wilder played a slightly more cuddly in the original. Co-starring, for a second time with Depp, is “Finding Neverland” stand-out Freddie Highmore, who is seemingly a conduit through which the sum of all human emotion passes easily. This kid even thinks about crying and 9 out of 10 people will spray waterworks uncontrollably about the theatre.

Christopher Lee gives a quick but memorable performance as Wonka’s father. What a ride Chris Lee has been on these last few years. He’s got to wake up some mornings and just think “Holy crap, I spent the length of 3 actor’s careers making B-grade horror films and wallowing in minor league obscurity and then one day that weird spherical Kiwi cast me in my frickin’ dream role in “The Lord of the Rings,” and now into my 80’s, I can’t get the phone to stop ringin’. Is it Tim Burton or George Lucas’ casting director again and what evil, towering bad-ass am I perfect for this time.?” He’s done arguably the best work of his massive career over the last couple years while other guys his age are sitting a lot and hoping desperately for the good jello.

The film also stars David Kelly (“Waking Ned Devine”) as Charlie’s Grandfather, a former Wonka employee fulfilling a dream going back inside the factory on Charlie’s ticket. Noah Taylor (“Almost Famous,” “Vanilla Sky”) and Helena Bonham Carter (“Fight Club”) round out the excellent supporting cast, which includes a pile of unknowns perfectly cast as the other four golden ticket holders.

I liked “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” when I left the theatre. When I woke up the next morning, I loved it. Burton is a genius who can’t help making the world of film a better place by being the thing most people aren’t– truly unique. I can’t wait for the DVD, and I hope there are plenty of extras.

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