A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, PG, 115 mins.

Willy Wonka: Johnny Depp / Charlie Bucket: Freddie Highmore / Grandpa Joe: David Kelly / Mrs. Bucket: Helena Bonham Carter / Mr. Bucket: Noah Taylor / Mrs. Beauregarde: Missi Pyle / Mr. Salt: James Fox / Oompa Loompa: Deep Roy / Veruca Salt: Julia Winter / Violet: Annasophia Robb / Mike Teavee: Jordan Fry / Augustus Gloop: Philip Wiegratz / Dr. Wonka: Christopher Lee

Directed by Tim Burton /  Based on the book by Roald Dahl

This is about as forceful and antagonistic as I am ever going to get with making a statement in any review that you’ll read here:

If you don’t like chocolate, then I think that you are clearly a misguided fool.  There…I said it!

  Okay, maybe you suffer from some serious and debilitating caffeine intolerance that precludes that you can’t eat chocolate in all of its tasty glory.  For those that are perfectly capable of digesting this earthly delight that choose not to – for shame!  I simply can’t remember a time when I did not like chocolate.  My absolute favourite chocolate bar is a two-way tie, I am afraid, between WONDERBAR (was there ever a more effective name for a bar that would excite one’s taste buds like some sort of odd, Pavlovian response mechanism?) and the BIG TURK (“big” in the name is always a good thing).  To take a page out of Willy Wonka’s playbook, these bars are just so dang scrumdiddlyumptious. 

When the now famous children’s book - CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY - was released by author Roald Dahl, I think its ultimate success can be surmised rather succinctly – it tapped into a child’s wide-eyed fascination and unapologetic love of all things sugar induced.  It did what all popular children’s fiction (and escapist fantasy, for that matter) should do – it thrilled, excited, and inspired an endless sense of wonder from its readers.  I think that it also tapped into some of the basic desires that all people (young and old) probably have entertained at some point in their lives.  C’mon, but who wouldn’t want to go to the world’s largest chocolate factory that that was so infamous that no one has stepped foot in it for years?  You just can’t buy that type of reclusive intrigue.  I guess it also does not hurt that nearly everything inside is eatable…hell…even the grass on the ground can be digested. 

The book was made into the equally cherished WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and, as ashamed as I am willing to admit here, I still have not seen it to this day.  Yup.  Sorry.  I have no excuses.  So, in retrospect, I find that this places me in an ever-so-awkward position to review Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of Dahl’s immortal children’s work.  Usually I subscribe to a particular mindset when reviewing films that are remakes to ones that I have seen, but in this case I will review Burton’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY as a stand-alone work and will not, for obvious reasons, make mention to or comparisons to the original 1971 classic, which would be superficial at best. 

If there was ever a film director that could tap into the wondrous imagination of Dahl’s work then it is clearly Burton.  CHARLIE AND CHOCOLATE FACTORY is not his first exploration into Dahl’s literary universe (he did produce the wonderful and underrated animated JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH).  So, this new adaptation of Dahl’s book seems to be a labour of love for the gifted visualist in Burton.  He is adapting Dahl, but his aesthetic stamp nevertheless runs through every pore of CHARLIE, not to mention that he has his favourite resident actor in Johnny Depp playing the lead of the enigmatic chocolate king.  They have teamed up three times previously with great results – 1999’s SLEEPY HOLLOW, 1994’S ED WOOD (my vote for the pair’s best film), 1990’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and now their fourth collaboration is CHARLIE.  It seems that every time they work together it truly brings out the best in them and CHARLIE is no exception.  It’s a euphoric work of imagination, wit, whimsicality, audacious visual opulence through and through and is an exemplary work of pure and giddy escapism. 

Burton usually has garnered a reputation has being a fairly dark, kooky, and gothic director in terms of his visual palette.  Looking as his past films, like the two BATMAN films and SLEEPY HOLLOW, is reflective of this point.  Yet, CHARLIE is a film that does show flourishes of the A-typical Burton film noir touches, but when the film opens up and we finally are given a tour, along with the other characters, of that wacky chocolate factory, it's like Burton realized how much fun painting the screen with wild and wonderful colors could be.  This film plays up to what our imaginations could only dream of what a fantastical chocolate factory could be like.  Burton dishes all of this up to us in scene after scene that sparkles with virtuoso art direction, set design, state of the art CGI effects, and bold and gorgeous colors that seem to have leaped off of a Technicolor musical.  This is one of the best looking films of 2005, and it effectively creates an out-of-body allure that many of the great escapist entertainments, like STAR WARS, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and the WIZARD OF OZ, have inspired in their audiences.   Like the works of Lucas and Jackson, this is a film to stare at the screen, engage in its visuals, and become transfixed in a state of marvelous and childlike awe. 

Burton has carefully (and rightfully) renamed the film CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY because it, like the book that inspired it, is really a story told from the perspective of a child.  Young Charlie (the great Freddie Highmore, who recently starred opposite Depp in FINDING NEVERLAND) is a warm-hearted and congenial kid that, despite his own enormous poverty that could be best described as Dickensian on steroids, still manages to crack a exuberant smile and enjoy the company of his family (and what an odd and eclectic bunch they are).   

Charlie’s family lives in a house that seems to have been designed by an architect who had Cubism on his brain.  It leans in every direction and is so dilapidated that you sort of question if Social Services even exists in the town, but never mind.  This is one poor family, so poor that Charlie only gets one chocolate bar a year for his birthday.  There is the mother (Helena Bontham Carter) who manages the home and the father (Noah Taylor) who always seems unemployed and finally there is kind and affable Grandpa Joe (the delightful David Kelly) who fondly remembers a time when he used to work at the chocolate factory. 

Well, it seems that not everything was going well for the chocolate factory.  Its mysterious CEO, Willy Wonka, dismissed all of his employees 15 years ago and shut his gates for good, never to be seen in public again.  Yet, the company still thrives on making everyone’s favourite bar, the wonderfully named Wonka's Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemellow Delights.  Then, the amazing happens – Wonka announces that five lucky children will be able to visit his secluded and mysterious factory if they are able to find a golden ticket in their Wonka bars.  Not only that, but Wonka himself will give the guided tour with a special “surprise” to be given to one kid.  Of course, seeing that the title of the film and all, Charlie is one of those kids who gets lucky with a ticket.  The other four kids are a mixed bagged of unlikeable personas.  We have Augustas, an overweight German boy that sure does love his candy.  Then there is Veruca, who seems to be the most spoiled girl…well…ever.  Then there is Violet, an overachiever that would make Tracy Flick from ELECTION blush.  Finally, there is Mike, a young and violent prone video game-aholic. 

It is when we first meet Wonka (played by Johnny Depp, more on him later) and subsequently visit his factory where the film truly becomes what it is – a terrifically and exemplary concocted feast for the eyes and imagination.  The first stage of the factory is a cute little satiric jab at those lame Disneyland anamatronic shows made up of singing puppets, in the vein of “It’s A Small World”.  Well, this puppet show that starts Wonka’s tour accidentally gets set on fire.  Needless to say, when Wonka appears and takes the kids (with their one parental figure) on the tour, the factory comes across as a peculiar hybrid of Disneyland and the Emerald City of Oz, except for the fact that nearly everything is made of some sort of candy.  There are rivers and waterfalls made of chocolate, giant trees that have cherries the size of basketballs, and mountains made of fudge.  There is also a brilliant special effects scene which involves a boat that takes the tourists through many caverns of the factory, and a glass elevator that is capable of going up, down, and sideways (or, as Wonka puts it, "slantways" and "longways").  There is also a fantastic scene that involves hundreds of squirrels (they make the best workers in terms of opening up walnuts).  Every scene in the factory is a gloriously realized bit of fantasy.  Oh…and then there are the Oompa Loompas. 

It seems that the Oompa Loompas are the secret work force that Wonka uses, who are look like humans but are about the size of Yoda.  They are realized in a masterstroke of visual effects.  There's hundreds of them, all played by the same one man, Deep Roy, who is replicated flawlessly by CG technology.  The Oompa Loompas are dedicated and docile, if not a little offbeat and very, very weird.  They sing and dance…a lot…and their musical numbers are surprisingly silly, quirky, charming, and very funny.  The lyrics were adapted by composer Danny Elfman from Dahl’s book and they contain enough wit and sly satire to keep the adults in the audience laughing uproariously.  The numbers are enormously entertaining, and don’t last too long to be a hindrance, nor are they too short to be an afterthought. 

Okay, then there is Johnny Depp as Wonka, and his work here has been much maligned as being a creepy reincarnate version of a certain King of Pop.  Despite the fact that Depp has claimed to be inspired more by the reclusive Howard Hughes and glam-shock-rock star Marilynn Manson, there is no denying the eerie parallels here with Michael Jackson.  He too has pasty white skin, dresses foppishly and flamboyantly, has his own amusement park filled with toys, and has a childlike mentality beneath is adult exterior.  However, this figure is fundamentally different in the sense that he does not seem to like children at all, not to mention that he allows for a parent to come on the tour with their kid (note to Michael – next sleepover you plan, have a parental chaperone, you’ll get in less trouble).   

I for one love Depp’s work here, and he carefully and delicately overplays the role broadly, which is more or less in tune with the overall tone of the film, which exudes colourful and showy excesses.  He is a bit creepy, but is never really vile or vindictive.  He is also wonderfully uncensored in his language, spitting out things innocuously without thinking first.  He behaves like a child who has the biggest and best factory in the world.  His funniest moment occurs when he explains what can and can’t be eaten.  “Everything here is eatable, even the grass, but you can’t eat me, because that would be called cannibalism and that would not be appropriate.” Despite his eccentricities, Wonka is ultimately a likeable oddity that inspires more of our laughter than our scornful contempt, not to mention that he is not the twisted freak of nature that Jackson has become after years of horrendous plastic surgery.  Depp seems absolutely born to play the role.

My only little complaint of the film is in some of its misplaced hostility towards children.  Some of the more ostentatious and unruly tykes do get punished in the film, and their fates range from slapstick and farcical to somewhat disturbing and sinister.  Yes, there is a bit of a message here - that wicked indulgence should is not a commendable attribute - but I am kind of wondering if children won’t find the moments where the kids are “punished” a bit scary.  Also, most of the parents seem a bit too unmoved when, for example, their child is reduced to a size that would make them a midget to the Oompa Lompas.  Maybe the punishment for some of the kids' crimes are appropriate, and I do not think that being sucked up in a gigantic chocolate tube is altogether traumatizing. 

Burton’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is a pure visual delight, and it does an exquisite job of transporting its audience into a world that breathes colorful life through every frame.  The film does what all works of escapist fantasy should do – it plays up to all of our innocent curiosities and helps fuel our desires to be whisked away into something magical and mystical.  The film is mischievous, inventive, wickedly droll, and enormously well realized and mounted (the production design alone warrants serious Oscar Attention).  For me, watching this remake was about as enjoyable as sinking my teeth into a WONDERBAR or BIG TURK – it was every way just as sweet and enjoyable.  And a little bit of Oompa Lompas goes a long way...trust me.

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