Sunday, July 31, 2005

Review - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Another day, another remake of a much-loved film from the past. However, this one is worthy of more interest than most as it is less of a remake than a new interpretation of the source material. While Mel Stuart’s 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory made a number of changes to Roald Dahl’s book (not least the title), Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aims to be far more faithful to his enduring tale. It’s also a seemingly perfect melding of filmmaker and material, with Burton’s unique visual style and warped sensibility ideally suited to Dahl’s world. As a result, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the director’s best work in a decade, a flawed but often wonderful film which showcases all that’s good and bad about Burton.
You probably know the story by now. Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, showing his performance in Finding Neverland was no fluke) is a poor young boy living in a tiny, ramshackle house with his parents (Helena Bonham-Carter and Noah Taylor) and four grandparents (who all seem to eat, sleep and live in one bed). The imposing sweet factory run by the mysterious recluse Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) stands just down the road and is the cause of much excitement one day when Wonka announces a very special competition. Hidden inside five of his chocolate bars are golden tickets which will permit the child who finds it to take a tour around his amazing factory; an announcement which causes mass hysteria worldwide as people buy up as much chocolate as they can lay their hands on.

Soon the tickets start to be found by youngsters who, by strange coincidence, each exhibit the very worst personality traits to be found in children. Augustus Gloop is a gluttonous, enormously fat German boy, Veruca Salt comes from a rich English family and is spoilt rotten, Violet Beauregarde is cocky little girl who is encouraged to be the best at all costs by her ambitious mother, while Mike Teavee is only interested in television and computer games. Then a miracle happens, poor Charlie Bucket finds the final ticket and, accompanied by his Grandpa Joe (the wonderful Irish actor David Kelly), joins the other four kids on their tour. Unlike the rest of them, he’s simply happy to be there.

Burton brings Dahl’s tale to life with boundless energy and flair, making this as visually arresting an experience as you’ll have in the cinema. The majority of the sets were actually designed and built by Burton’s exceptional production designer Alex McDowell rather than created by CGI and, with the help of Philippe Rousselot’s crisp and bright cinematography, the result is a spectacular and completely involving environment. John August’s screenplay adheres closely to the template of the novel (except for one major instance, which we’ll get to later) and is full of witty lines and marvellous visual gags, making this the funniest of Burton’s films to date.

It’s a delight to see so many of the book’s greatest scenes recreated in such glorious fashion here. The squirrels’ attack on violet is a particular highlight, as is the television room where Mike Teavee gets his comeuppance, while Burton has skilfully used computer technology and one extraordinary performance by the 4’ 4” actor Deep Roy to create hundreds of Oompa Loompas, who are at the core of many of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s best moments. The Oompa Loompas provide a number of songs (actually performed by Burton’s longtime collaborator Danny Elfman) but the lyrics are often impossible to decipher, making the performances a disappointment despite the brilliant staging.

At the centre of all this is Johnny Depp, delivering the strangest display of his unusual career. God bless Depp for constantly going out on a limb - his swaggering, mascara-laden performance rescued the bloated and dumb Pirates of the Caribbean - but his Willy Wonka is something else entirely. Coming across like a twisted hybrid of Michael Jackson and Howard Hughes; his mannered, slightly aloof demeanour takes some getting used to. It’s an understandable approach, as Wonka has had no human contact in over a decade and is unsure how to interact with these people, but I’m not entirely sure it works. He’s often very funny, and many of the biggest laughs come from his facial expressions, but it’s a performance which precludes emotional involvement in his story and leaves the film struggling to find the right note at the climax.

And then there’s the film’s most troublesome aspect. August has only made one real departure from the book, but it’s a biggie. For some reason the filmmakers have decided to saddle Wonka with a backstory involving his difficult upbringing at the hands of his father, a rather zealous dentist (a perfectly-cast Christopher Lee). This is a really unnecessary addition and the flashbacks involved rob the film of the rollercoaster momentum the factory sequences develop. Burton tries to build to a father-son reunion but it is poorly handled and, as we don’t really feel anything for Wonka, the ending falls horribly flat.

Still, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fun ride for most of the journey and manages to convey the spirit of Dahl much more than the 1971 version did. Burton is in his element at times, and this is such a relief after the misguided Planet of the Apes and Big Fish, but his inability to tackle the emotional aspects of a story in a subtle and complex manner still causes problems. Viewers of all ages will have fun at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but some may be disappointed when they take of the garish wrapper and bite into such a soft, gooey centre.