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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.
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 any fantasy 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 credible take-no-prisoners 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