Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tim Burton's fantastic take on Roald Dahl's children's book leaves Gene Wilder and his
Candyman song way behind. The effects-loaded live action film is a natural for the
twisted designs and subdued madness of Burton's universe. There are plenty of people for whom
Burton's way of envisioning the world in storybook terms just doesn't work, but Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory is a perfect fit for his sensibility. Many films have tried
to interpret the world of Dr. Seuss
(The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T)
and not quite made the grade; Burton's phantasmagoria gathers up Seussian ideas along with many
other scattershot references -- even Bollywood epics -- and rolls them into a delightfully
droll and funny confection royale.
The Wonka Chocolate factory has been operating for years without employees, until
its eccentric owner Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) opens the doors for one day to the recipients of
lucky Golden Tickets hidden in just five out of millions of chocolate bars. Four of the winners
get their tickets by demanding that their parents buy huge quantities of chocolate, while young
Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) hopes for the best while cheering up his unemployed extended
family, all of whom live in a precariously dilapidated shack. Even if Charlie should by some miracle
find the fifth Golden Ticket, he figures he should sell it to support his kinfolk. One of his
grandparents wisely advises him that the world is full of money, and both his ticket and his
dreams are not to be bartered away. Besides, Charlie's decrepit Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), a long-ago
laid-off chocolate worker, wants desperately to be Charlie's chaperone should he win a visit to
the mysterious chocolate factory.
Sustaining the correct balance of whimsy for a story as light as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
is no mean task. Nobody's ever made a really definitive version of Babes in Toyland or
The Blue Bird, for instance. Go too easy on the production values and the show looks cheap.
Too heavy with sets and props, and the end product can turn out heavy and ponderous. Just about the only
perfect blend of children's story, comedy and musical ever made is The Wizard of Oz, and it's
been in a category of its own for 65 years.
What puts Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over the top are the same qualities that make
a winner. Superior design keeps us constantly interested. Big pieces of Willy Wonka's wonderland factory
are obviously CGI-created fantasyscapes, but these neither bore us or induce visual overkill, as
many CGI films do. A good point of comparison is the 'heaven' created in the Robin Williams film
What Dreams May Come. It
overpowers all other factors including the script and the acting ... it's just too
much of a not-so-good thing. Entering Willy Wonka's sugary domain is truly awe-inspiring ... the
little idealized landscapes of edible plants and chocolate rivers are storybook-perfect. They're
also reminiscent of earlier psychedelic settings seen and unseen, like H.G. Wells' moon grottos in the book First
Men In the Moon, or even Ishiro Honda's mysterious island in
Matango. Strange things could
be growing in there. At least one chocolate-devouring brat behaves like a crazed addict of
Matango, practically becoming what he eats. There are similar tangential allusions or visual
references to sources as varied as The Fly, Million Dollar Mermaid and Dr. Who,
but John August's smooth screenplay is too clever to simply borrow ideas -- it all seems very fresh.
Pundits are sniping at Johnny Depp's weird-o version of Willy Wonka as an unpleasant mirror image
of Michael Jackson, luring his kiddie guests into a perverse playground. Wonka's attire and
just-so Edwardian grooming indeed encourages the comaparison. But Depp's Wonka is
actually another of Tim Burton's Vincent-like introverted obsessives, a benign version of
Vincent Price's Verden Fell in The Tomb of Ligeia. Burton's one addition to the Roald Dahl
story is to add a slightly 'haunted' backstory to give Wonka a rationale for his demented (but
benign) behavior. Wonka is a good exemplar of what happens to uncomplicated people when their
dreams collide with the cruel realities of business: They go slightly nuts.
Burton has a genuinely sweet disposition for his characters, from Pee-Wee Herman through Edward
Scissorhands and beyond. Charlie Bucket's Dickensian family situation is touching without tugging
at our feelings. His grandparents share one bed while his parents put on the best face possible
amid true hopelessness. The old folks are cute but aren't used for lame jokes - one Grandma is shown
to be dotty but doesn't become a running gag.
But the film also knows when to have teeth. The other four contestants represent various horror
children of the imagination, who may not be exaggerations at all. Nobody's capable of being as
insincere or downright mean as a kid, and this batch are set up as a gallery of annoyances. The
Bavarian glutton would be pretty cruel stereotype, yet he's hardly exaggerated, just as the
video game whiz is a born killer that even his father doesn't understand. The
ultra-competitive pair of girls are a great combo: One is a terminally spoiled English tot who
terrorizes her own father (Edward Fox), and the other is an American 'eyes on the prize' killer
mini-babe quick to stick everyone else in the loser category. We can't wait to see these monsters
ambushed by Wonka's garden of delights. As Wonka says, his whole idea is to find five kids and
award a special prize to the one that's the least obnoxious.
Much of Wonka's world is witty beyond words, especially a huge gallery of nut-sorting trained
squirrels. The setup itself is hilarious and then individual jokes in the sequence made Savant
laugh out loud, something I haven't done in the theater for a long time. Wonka's glass elevator
becomes a rather too convenient 'get from here to there' device, but a flashback to the candymaker's
traumatic childhood as the tortured son of a heartless dentist (Christopher Lee, almost but not
quite loveable in the role) is almost perfection. The same goes for another weird flashback to
India, where Wonka is hired to ... well, why spoil it?
Multiplied to infinity to represent the Oompa Loompa tribe transplanted to run Wonka's factory,
Deep Roy rows a fascinating tireme through Pirates of the Caribbean-style subterranean
waterways. Hundreds of Oompa Loompas break out in amazing Busby Berkeley dances as each of
Charlie's unlucky companions outsmart themselves and earn various bizarre 'consolation prizes.'
The first dance is fall-down amazing, but by the second or third they become a tad repetitive.
Not helping is an audio mix that doesn't allow us to hear the presumably clever lyrics - the
dancing Deep Roys criticize each chocolate-doom victim as they inflate like a baloon or are
sucked down a garbage disposal.
Burton chooses to end Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on a sweet note of whimsy instead
of a fireworks finale, which may account for some odd reviews criticizing the finale as a letdown.
I thought the movie wasn't at all disturbing, and I'd show it to any kid old enough to distinguish
between fantasy and reality. Obviously a four year-old might be terrorized by the jeopardy and
apparent doom doled out to some of Wonka's deserving visitors.
Reviewed: July 19, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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