Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Tim Burton
A couple of things about Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are absolutely great: it’s a visual extravaganza and it’s funny in slightly sick way. The story involves five children who have won a visit to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and compete for a unspecified grand prize. The factory has been closed for 15 years after some employees stole trade secrets from Willy, making him paranoid and reclusive. Actually, the factory has been operating with a staff of miniature people, the Oompa Loompas, smuggled in by Willy in apparent violation of immigration laws.
While the story is aimed at children (based on Roald Dahl's 1964 book), Tim Burton has tweaked things a bit with some bizarre humor. Things can be flowing along – Willy giving the kids a tour of the factory – when he throws in a little zinger about cannibalism. One of my favorite scenes involves the spooled-rotten kid (Julia Winter as Veruca Salt in the best of the child performances) getting dragged down a garbage chute after being warned by Willy, “Don’t touch that squirrel’s nuts.” It’s a very nice looking set – a room full of trained squirrels who shell and sort nuts – and Veruca absolutely must have one of the squirrels. I found the scene hilarious but I wonder how many people will laugh at this cute – but admittedly bratty – girl getting attacked by a few dozen squirrels and dumped down the garbage chute. A similar fate awaits the other children – except the saintly Charlie, of course. Something really bad happens to all of them… but after they do something to deserve it. One of sick-funniest parts: after each kid gets punished, the Oompa Loompas break out in a wacky musical number. Will most people laugh at the kids being severely punished, followed by a song mocking them? I found it hysterical but I didn’t hear anyone else laughing.
One of the weaker elements of the film is that, of the five kids, Charlie is so radiantly wholesome – too much so – no kid is that perfect – and the other kids are so obviously brats – that it’s simply a no-brainer that Charlie’s going to win. When you know what’s going to happen, there’s no real conflict – no drama – weak story. But that’s typical of children’s stories, so I guess I shouldn’t expect too much.
The strength of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that I can’t overstate is the beautiful art direction, production design, costuming, and cinematography – the elements that make up what you see on the screen. The factory is stark and grey on the outside but a wonderland of color and fun on the inside. Every one of Tim Burton’s films – no exceptions – displays a powerful flair for visual art – he’s a rare artist working in film who attracts other talented visual artists in the areas mentioned above. His odd sense of humor won’t appeal to everyone, but the stunning images he creates for the big screen should command broad appeal.
Unlike the book and Mel Stuart’s 1971 movie (a musical adaptation), Tim Burton’s film includes several flashbacks into Willy’s childhood – unhappy, of course – to explain why he’s so strange and reclusive. The scenes are well done – with Christopher Lee as his father – very strict and a dentist to boot. I would have left those scenes out. Weird, eccentric characters like Willy are usually more fun if left without a backstory.
A controversy has attached itself to this film. The main character, Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), has more than a passing resemblance to Michael Jackson – stark, pale face; fancy, almost feminine clothes; the factory resembling a playground a la Neverland Ranch. So the obvious question: given that Michael Jackson was being tried for child molestation while the movie was in production, isn’t it just a little too weird to create this character so similar to MJ? The short answer is “yes”. But on the other hand, in the movie Willy is very aloof toward the kids, wearing purple rubber gloves to avoid touching, recoiling when hugged by one of them… whereas Jackson was the opposite: too cozy, too intimate with the kids (sleeping in the same bed, etc.) I read that both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have said that they didn’t think of Jackson when creating the character. I find that amazing, given the similarity and the huge publicity surrounding the Jackson case – which ended in acquittal, in case you’ve been on a mission to Mars.
I found Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka enormously funny in a somewhat creepy way. It’s not the kind of humor that I’d expect to have broad appeal, but it killed me. Even if sick humor isn’t your thing, the film is just so gorgeous. Turn Tim Burton loose with a $150 million production budget and he’ll knock your socks off with one visually stunning scene after another. I call it a must-see in 35mm. Reducing this movie to DVD will produce a mere miniature version – like the chocolate bar in his 2001: A Space Odyssey tribute scene – you have to see Charlie to know what I mean.
Images are copyright Warner Brothers Pictures.
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