Photo by Peter MountainRoald Dahl and Tim Burton are a match made in some twisted kid heaven where
anyone over four feet high is in principle not to be trusted, and wondrously inventive
contraptions save the day on behalf of grievously mistreated children. But a match
made in heaven doesn’t always translate into paradise on Earth. The first half
of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a delirious fantasy of abandonment
and super-abundant candy adapted from Dahl’s most popular novel by John August
(who also wrote Burton’s moribund Big Fish), is a brilliant blend of the
best of Burton and Dahl, with some unexpected input from Charles Dickens. In the
second half, the contraptions take over, drowning whatever story remains. Add
to that a strangely uncommitted performance by Johnny Depp, and the movie subsides,
as so many Burton movies have, into a mere triumph of production design. That’s
not nothing — visually this Charlie is still five times the picture that
Mel Stuart’s pallid 1971 Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was. But
it falls frustratingly short of the masterpiece it might have been.
Burton is not entirely to blame. To my mind, Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate
is a compromised yarn that doesn’t compare to, say, his Matilda
or James and the Giant Peach, both of which gave shape and context to children’s
experience of malevolent adult authority, and both of which were made into terrific
movies, the latter produced by Burton. And though I’ve come to regard James
and the Giant Peach
’s Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker as two of kiddie lit’s most
misogynistic creations, there’s no denying that this robust anti-Semite’s bleak,
even cruel vision of the damage adults can do to children was the source of his
most powerful work. (His direct descendant, Lemony Snicket, is every bit as bracing,
but far less sadistic.)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was written in 1964 just before
Dahl’s wife, actress Patricia Neal, suffered a severe stroke, takes an uncharacteristically
benign view of family — and an unusually savage view of children as spoiled brats.
Except of course for the novel’s hero, Charlie Bucket, who’s played in the movie
by Freddie Highmore, the pinched lad who ran away with the otherwise wimpy Finding
. Charlie lives in requisite dire poverty with his devoted parents
(Helena Bonham Carter — that’s Mrs. Tim Burton to you — and Noah Taylor) and four
bed-bound, kindly grandparents, one of whom is played with hilarious malapropism
by the incomparably hatchet-faced British actress Liz Smith. The early scenes,
which set up Charlie’s saintly character against those of the four rich and undeserving
little monsters who find the golden tickets that will gain them access to Willie
Wonka’s mysteriously closed chocolate factory, are irresistible. Fat, insatiable
Augustus Gloop, pasty Veruca Salt, hypercompetitive Violet Beauregarde (with her
glassy-eyed Stepford Wife of a mother) and empty-headed Mike Teavee are all played
by actors who look borderline claymated. Burton remains a master of bizarre housing,
from Charlie’s crazily careening cottage, to the assembly-line factory where his
dad puts the tops on tubes of toothpaste, to the gleaming factory floor where
Veruca’s indulgent father has his entire staff frantically opening candy wrappers
to find the golden ticket, to a melting chocolate palace in India, and finally
to Wonka’s enterprise — from the outside a gloomy industrial edifice straight
out of Fritz Lang, while inside it’s a fantasyland as menacing as it is enticing.
Burton and his production designer, Alex McDowell, take scrumptious advantage of Dahl’s ecstatically vivid descriptions of candy — the reason, I suspect, why kids love this book so much — and there’s enormous fun to be had watching the greedy kids wander through an endlessly edible terrain of giant sweets as they get knocked off, one by one. (The blueberrification of Violet is particularly inspired, and Veruca’s comeuppance at the hands of a mob of squirrels breaks new ground in kiddie horror.) But while Charlie got his impeccable moral sense and lack of acquisitiveness from his incorruptible relatives, Dahl provides only the weakest motivation for Willie Wonka — and it doesn’t help that Depp’s Wonka is as weak and vaporous as his J.M. Barrie was in Finding Neverland. Try as Burton and August might to compensate with a desperate lunge into cut-rate psychoanalysis — furnishing the unloved entrepreneur with a dentally impaired childhood, achieved in flashbacks that end up flattening the movie — Gene Wilder’s wistful menace in the earlier version was far more effective. I spent much of the time when Depp was onscreen longing for more of Burton’s divinely nutty Bollywood musical numbers, in which mini-actor Deep Roy is multiply deployed in various shades of vinyl as the Oompa-Loompas. As many have already pointed out, the androgynous Depp is eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson, but as a lesson in the price of gluttony (like many good children’s writers, Dahl was an ardent moralist), both he and the movie come off pretty wispy.
Certainly the lesson seems lost on Warner Bros. After the screening, we were showered
with vast quantities of Wonka candy. “Take the whole box,” one studio representative
urged my daughter. “I thought this movie was about not being greedy,” I murmured.
He beamed, “Be greedy.”
JOHN AUGUST | Based on the book by ROALD DAHL | Produced by RICHARD D. ZANUCK
and BRAD GREY | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide

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