Source: New York Times
Date: 15 July 2005

Looking for the Candy, Finding a Back Story


Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

From the outside, Willy Wonka's factory is a grim, imposing industrial edifice towering over rows of red-brick shops and houses - something out of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" planted in the landscape of Charles Dickens's "Hard Times."

It is not ugly, exactly - by now we are accustomed to seeing grandeur in this kind of architecture - but it is nonetheless forbidding. The interior, of course, is another story. This factory does not only turn out irresistible confections. As imagined by Tim Burton and his production designer, Alex McDowell, Wonka's candyworks is itself such a confection, a place of extravagant innovation and wild indulgence where the ordinary principles of physics, chemistry and human behavior do not apply.

As you might expect in such a place, not everything quite works. The man in charge, while a stickler for detail in some ways, is also prone to letting his imagination outrun his sense of discipline or proportion. There are some intriguing ideas that don't quite come off as planned and a few treats that leave behind a funny aftertaste. The fact that so much whimsy is contained within such somber walls lends your visit an intriguing complexity. There is pleasure, but also a shadow of menace - an inkling of the sinister in the midst of abundant, lovingly manufactured delight.

By now it will be clear that I'm not really talking about Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, but rather about "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Mr. Burton's wondrous and flawed new adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved novel. I call it wondrous because, in spite of lapses and imperfections, a few of them serious, Mr. Burton's movie succeeds in doing what far too few films aimed primarily at children even know how to attempt anymore, which is to feed - even to glut - the youthful appetite for aesthetic surprise.

The story will be familiar to much of the audience, either from the book or from the earlier film adaptation, directed by Mel Stuart and starring Gene Wilder, and this familiarity has perhaps freed Mr. Burton to concentrate on the machinery of visual fantasy. Many of the children watching will know, more or less, what is coming (and some, like my screening companions, will keep a running tally of what is and isn't in the book). But when certain familiar scenes hit the screen - a room full of walnut-sorting squirrels (real ones, by the way), an Oompa-Loompa chorus line, the splendid comeuppances of Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee - their eyes will widen. And so will yours, since you've never seen anything quite like this before.

Apart from a few misguided flashbacks (which depart from both the spirit and the content of the book), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," with the Burton mainstay Johnny Depp as the mischievous candy magnate, moves, like Dahl's original, in a straight line from one inspired set piece to the next. There is the chocolate room with its waterfall and edible flora, a television laboratory that also functions as a self-contained homage to Stanley Kubrick, and of course the Oompa-Loompas (all of them played by a single actor, Deep Roy), who sing Danny Elfman's techno show-tune arrangements of Dahl's cautionary rhymes. Most of the narrative is taken up by a tour of the mysterious factory, conducted by Wonka himself, and the film should be taken in a similar spirit, as an excursion through the prodigious, slightly scary mind of an obsessive inventor.

Of course, Mr. Burton's world, for all its weirdness, is by now a familiar place. Lately, though, it hasn't been as much fun to visit as it used to be. His recent films - "Sleepy Hollow," "Planet of the Apes," "Big Fish" - have seemed at once overwrought and curiously inert, lacking the wit of "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Mars Attacks!" or the soulful expressionism of "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands." But in this case the source material seems to have reawakened the director's imagination, as he has found both Dahl and his most famous creation to be kindred spirits.

The secret of Dahl's charm, and Wonka's, is that neither one seems to be an entirely nice person. Or, rather, neither has much use for the condescending sweetness that some adults adopt in the belief that children will mistake it for niceness. Dahl's sensibility was gleefully punitive; he was a scourge of bullies, brats and scolds, and a champion of unfussy decency against all manner of beastliness. The four children besides little Charlie Bucket who win entry to Wonka's factory are marvelously awful embodiments of ordinary vices, and Mr. Burton and the screenwriter, John August (who also wrote the script for "Big Fish"), have brought their awfulness discreetly up to date.

Violet Beauregarde (AnnaSophia Robb) is not merely an obsessive gum chewer, but a ruthlessly competitive power-pixie with a matching mom and shelves full of trophies in her suburban Atlanta home. Mike Teavee's antisocial tendencies, fed by the television Dahl loathed, have been compounded by video games. Far from a couch potato, the boy (played by Jordan Fry) is a sociopathic embodiment of the currently voguish theory that such entertainment makes children smarter.

Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) is still a glutton, of course, and Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) a spoiled rich girl. For his part, Charlie (Freddie Highmore, who also played opposite Mr. Depp in "Finding Neverland") is a child of picturesque poverty. His home, with its caved-in roof and single room dominated by a bed full of grandparents (including the marvelous Irish actor David Kelly as Grandpa Joe), are as true to Dahl's book as anything in the movie.

But most of all there is Willy Wonka, the latest - and perhaps the strangest - of Mr. Depp's eccentric characterizations. Jack Sparrow, the louche buccaneer in "Pirates of the Caribbean," put many viewers in mind of Keith Richard. There has already been some debate about possible real-life models for Wonka. The preternaturally smooth features and high-pitched voice - as well as the fantasy kingdom into which selected children are invited - may suggest Michael Jackson. Mr. Depp, in a recent interview, has dropped the name of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour. To me, the lilting, curiously accented voice sounded like an unholy mash-up of Mr. Rogers and Truman Capote, but really, who knows? The best thing about this Wonka, who tiptoes on the narrow boundary between whimsy and creepiness, is that he defies assimilation or explanation.

Or at least he should. Inexplicably, and at great risk to the integrity of the movie, the filmmakers have burdened him with a psychological back story pulled out of a folder in some studio filing cabinet. Why does Wonka spend his days confecting sweets? Why, in the movies these days, does anyone - artist, serial killer, superhero - do anything? An unhappy childhood, of course. I'll grant that it was clever to make Wonka's dad a mad, sugar-hating dentist (and to cast the unmatchably sinister Christopher Lee in the role), but to force a redemptive story of father-son reconciliation onto this story is worse than lazy; it is a betrayal of a book that the filmmakers seem otherwise to have not only understood, but also honored. Sentimentality about family relationships does not feature heavily in Dahl's world. Matilda, for example, the title character of another Dahl book, was more than happy to give herself up for adoption.

Luckily, though, the sumptuous, eerie look and mood of the movie make it possible to ignore this dispiriting and superfluous adherence to convention. There is simply too much pleasure to be found in Wonka's world to get too hung up about his relationship with his dad. The real lesson of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is - or should be - that pleasure and curiosity are their own rewards. "Candy doesn't have to have a point," Charlie says to the skeptical Mike Teavee. "That's why it's candy."

"Charlie and the Cocolate Factory" is rated PG (Parental Guidance suggested). It has some mildly suggestive humor and a few situations that may disturb younger children.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Opens nationwide today.

Directed by Tim Burton; written by John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Alex McDowell; produced by Brad Grey and Richard D. Zanuck; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 116 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Johnny Depp (Willy Wonka), Freddie Highmore (Charlie Bucket), David Kelly (Grandpa Joe), Helena Bonham Carter (Mother Bucket), Noah Taylor (Father Bucket), Missi Pyle (Mrs. Beauregarde), James Fox (Mr. Salt), Deep Roy (Oompa-Loompas), Christopher Lee (Dr. Wonka), AnnaSophia Robb, (Violet Beauregarde), Jordan Fry (Mike Teavee), Philip Wiegratz (Augustus Gloop) and Julia Winter (Veruca Salt).

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