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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/10/07 12:47:16

"Burton does it better."
5 stars (Awesome)

I'll bet there are many adults today who have queasy memories of 1971's 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.'

Psychedelic yet moralistic, the movie offered Gene Wilder in his full passive-aggressive efflorescence as the mysterious chocolatier Willy Wonka, whose gentle demeanor cloaked what appeared to be a deep contempt for children, his most loyal clientele. It also had ghastly songs (without this movie, Sammy Davis Jr. wouldn't have inflicted "The Candy Man" on telethon viewers year after year), those obnoxious Oompa Loompas, and colorful but indifferent direction by Mel Stuart. If anyone feels any sort of residual fondness for it, it's because that malicious fantasist Roald Dahl, in his original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, devised such a ready-made fantasy concept: five children invited to spend a day in the world's largest choccy emporium.

Remakes generally depress me as much as they do anyone else, but Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is poised to become a new cult classic to replace the old one. Burton understands this story in a way few other directors could (although Danny DeVito, who did a rascally job with Dahl's Matilda, might also have had fun with the project). This director constantly veers from mopiness to flamboyant glee, though Charlie is closer in tone to his Beetlejuice than to his Edward Scissorhands. Once again, Burton has Johnny Depp along for the ride, and though many have said that Depp has based his Willy Wonka on Michael Jackson, I suspect he's really playing the only person he ever plays in Tim Burton films -- Tim Burton. This Wonka is a misfit who enjoys showing off his elaborately designed playpen but isn't much fazed by those who don't appreciate it.

As in all other versions, the hero is Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), who lives in a broken-down house with his poverty-level family. Burton, however, takes the pathos out of Charlie's situation by giving him a house right out of German expressionism -- the entire doorway leans inward, for instance. Charlie is one of the five kids who discover a Golden Ticket inside a Wonka candy bar -- a ticket to a day inside the elusive Wonka's factory. The other kids are brats who each illustrate a childish trait that Dahl hated: gluttonous Augustus Gloop, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, cathode-mesmerized Mike Teavee (whose fixation has been updated to videogames), and, worst of all, spoiled rich girl Veruca Salt, whose attitude is so rotten that a rock band named themselves after her. Their punishments, as before, fit their crimes, though one wonders what exactly Roald Dahl had against gum-chewing.

Instead of sappy Anthony Newley songs, this movie has Danny Elfman scoring the original lyrics from Dahl's book; there's no brain-searing "Oompa Loompa doompadee doo" song here. The Oompa Loompas are all played (via digital replication) by the diminutive Indian actor Deep Roy, whose unsmiling and uncute persona here is both refreshing and consistently funny. The sets are, of course, obvious sets, but they always are in Tim Burton's films; the nasty bits (claustrophobes will, as ever, have a hard time with Augustus Gloop's fate) are softened by Burton's jaunty sense of artifice. Gene Wilder can criticize this remake all he wants -- Burton and Depp have simply done it better.

I have mixed feelings about a backstory added by scripter John August, in which the young Wonka's fascination with sweets is neatly tied to his forbidding dentist dad. It adds little to the story except for a lame coda in which Wonka, having learned the power of family, reunites with his dad; however, since the father is played by Christopher Lee -- still going strong at 83, Hammer bless him -- I'll forgive it. This Factory, genuinely beautiful and imaginative, is the movie that admirers of the original Factory (who haven't seen it since they were kids) carry around in their heads. And it adds another lovable freak to the Burton/Depp gallery, perhaps the freakiest of all.

Even without the Jacko undertones some viewers see in it, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is the most truly subversive entertainment for kids since ... well, since Roald Dahl stopped writing.

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