Roald Dahl was a prolific writer of short stories, full length novels, plays and poetry. It seemed that during his lifetime (1916-1990) he made forays into all the means of written expression at his disposal. But in the end he is best remembered as a writer of children’s fiction. To this day, James and The Giant Peach and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory remain two of the best known English language books for children.
Of the two, the latter seems to have had the more lasting appeal. What could be more compelling than the image of children set loose in not just a candy store, but a candy factory. All our wildest dreams of childhood come true.
But that’s the thing about Dahl, he had a way of twisting dreams and showing some of their darker side, always stopping well short of turning them into nightmares, but impinging them with enough reality to let some of the air out of the balloon.
Who better for directing a new adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than the man who gave us Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton? Dreams and myths twisted and made strange are his specialty.
In this instance he faced the massive challenge of not only adapting a beloved story, but competing with people’s memories of a previous, cherished, film version of the same story. Not only would he face the obvious comparisons to the forerunner, the very notion of the need for a remake would be questioned.
Faced with such an imposing task some people either would quail and walk away with their tails between their legs, or even worse play it safe and produce a staid copy of the original movie. Instead of either of these, Mr. Burton has gone back to the original source and mined Dahl’s darker imagery for his inspiration.
Adhering almost religiously to the story line of the original movie, he has judicially pruned in places and padded in others. Gone are all the saccharine moments of sentimentality that peppered the original movie. Nobody, save for the Oompa Loompas, bursts into song, and their songs have taken on a darker, more ominous tone than before.
He also gives Willie Wonka a back story of a tyrannical dentist father(Christopher Lee). Only Tim Burton could stand two movie conventions on their heads in one short flashback. When young Willie finally finds the courage to stand up to his father and declare his intention of becoming a chocolate maker, he’s warned that he can go but his father won’t be there when he gets back.
We are next treated to the usual montage of a person travelling; flags of various countries whirling past. But then young Willie is shaken from his reverie by a security guard to tell him the museum is closing; he hasn’t travelled at all, just been in a museum looking at flags. On his return home, Dad has made good on his promise. Not only is he not there, but the whole house has been torn from the row it stood in, leaving a large gap like a missing tooth in a smile.
Everything about this movie reflects Tim Burton’s macabre take on the world, from the sheer massiveness of the factory and the opening montage of the machinery at work making and packing the chocolate bars, to the magic edible tropical wonderland through which the chocolate river runs.
While everything is still fantastic and awe inspiring, one just can’t picture anyone breaking into song about it. There’s a hint of sadness, or some other shadow, that hangs over everything within the factory. While it is maybe everyone’s childhood fantasy to live in a candy factory, a grown man living all by himself in wonderland is made to look a little pathetic.
Pathological is probably the first word that comes to mind when the assembled children and parent figures meet Willie Wonka for the first time. The wrap around shades, artificial looking complexion, forced laugh and high voice put me immediately in mind of another troubled man who lives by himself in a make believe wonderland.
Johnny Depp has created a Willie Wonka both strange and appealing. He has no social skills whatsoever. The only time he ever seems to act with spontaneity are the occasions where he shows flashes of anger or sarcasm directed towards either the parents or children. The emotional shield that he has built around himself is reflected in his almost plastic appearance and stiffness of movement.
It’s Charlie (Freddie Highmore once again giving a stellar performance opposite Johnny Depp) who first starts to breach Willie’s defenses with his innocence and honesty. The man who can’t even say the word parents or family finds an innocent question about whether he can remember his first piece of candy bringing back a flood of memories from childhood.
Burton flirts dangerously with sentimentality at times in the movie, but manages to always step back from the brink just in time. Mostly this is due to Johnny Depp’s consistency in portraying Willie as a real child in a man’s body. After playing the man who created Peter Pan, he’s showing us the flip side of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
He’s desperately searching for the love he missed out on as a child. Never having been allowed to be a child he latches on to the superficial trappings of childhood for pleasure. His creations are all reflections of a child’s version of an ideal world. Waterfalls of chocolate, wild rides, a meal in a stick of bubble gum and ice cream that will never melt are all the things that any child would die for.
Of the five children who enter the factory as winners of the contest, only Charlie has learned enough about life to know what is important. When he rejects Wonka’s offer to move into the factory if it means he must abandon his family, Willie is stunned. How can there be anything more important then candies?
But on his return to the factory he falls into a funk and so does his candy. He returns to Charlie who then reunites him with his long lost father. Again Burton defies sentimentality by having father and son’s reconciliation hug be offset by the refusal of either party to doff their latex protective gloves.
It is the measure of an artist’s capabilities as to how they respond to a challenge. Neither Johnny Depp or Tim Burton have shown themselves to ever be easily intimidated. This production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fine example of their ingenuity. Neither settled for simply recreating what had previously been done. For that reason this movie far exceeds it’s predecessor in both quality as a movie and faithfulness to the original book.
I gather there has been much debate about whether there was a need for a new version of this movie. To me that is a pointless question. It is sort of like asking is there a need for more then one painter to paint a picture of an apple. Just because the object is the same does not mean there can only be one view of it.
In any case this version of the movie is far superior in my opinion to the previous one. The script is better, the acting is better, and on the whole it is more reflective of the spirit of Roald Dahl’s original story.
The difference between the two movie is like the difference between eating a commercial chocolate bar and a hunk of Belgian bitter sweet chocolate. While the first was a nice confection, it was sort of bland and indistinct from other similar products. The new version was dark and rich with enough flavour to set it off from any other so called children’s movie on the market.
I highly recommend it to children of all sizes.