Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (review)

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Think of the Children!

Separated at birth?

Um, ewww? My head reels with questions: Who did this? How did this happen? Is Tim Burton going soft in the sentiment lobe? Has someone been watching too much Court TV? Is it too much to hope that this grand betrayal of one of the touchstones of Generation X will at last be the straw that breaks the back of we-must-coddle-the-children protectionism that’s stifling today’s kids? How did a cautionary tale about the bad things that happen to obnoxious little kids and a celebration of the exuberant spirit of a conscious nonconformity turn into a cautionary tale about the psychosis of reclusive oddballism and a celebration of obnoxious little kids?
Oh, she wailed, I know, I KNOW it’s just a movie and it stands apart from the 1971 Gene Wilder flick and the book is still there forever and ever. But let all those other people deal with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory like that, all those other people who are able to unwrap candy bars without some tiny remote corner of their minds half expecting to find a golden ticket, who don’t react to some sudden burst of good fortune with a few bars of “I’ve got a golden ticket!”

I thought: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. They’re the Scorsese and DeNiro of weird dark creepy shit, and they’re putting their spin on one of the weirdest darkest creepiest kiddie flicks ever made. This is a sure thing. This cannot possibly go wrong. This is surefire scrumdiddilyumptious.

And the bastards, they teased me at first, with the industrial-gothic exterior of Wonka’s chocolate factory, like if Winston Smith walked past MiniChoc everyday this is what it would look like. With the funny-depressing commentary on the mad corporate drive to downsize and upprofit driving honest hardworking folk out of their jobs. With the regimented city blocks of Charlie Bucket’s little city bringing to mind the rigid order of Edward Scissorhands‘ smothering suburbia. And the hilariously demented Disney-esque puppet musical number that gets so twisted by its finale that you can’t believe you eyes. This is the Burton (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) I was expecting.

Oh, and when I saw Noah Taylor’s name in the opening credits — he who played the mad, sad young Hitler as a thwarted artist in Max — I thought, He’s gotta be Slugworth.

But there’s no Slugworth here, as if to suggest that even spoiled rotten brats like Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee are incorruptible. (Slugworth, for the uninitiated, is the rival chocolatier who attempts to bribe the golden-ticket winners to sneak a sample of Wonka’s latest invention out of the factory, and even good, noble, sweet Charlie gives in to the temptation in the 1971 flick.) And these new Oompa-Loompas (all played by Deep Roy: The Haunted Mansion, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) are like something out of a bad 1930s SF serial, one with Buster Crabbe, perhaps, fighting the little buggers on the moon. The Oompa-Loompas three decades ago were nightmare-inducing on a Flying Monkey scale partly because their scolding tunes were so spot-on in their chiding of greedy, nasty, demanding, unpleasant behavior on the part of kids — no little kid watching this flick wanted to be in their line of sight. But we can’t understand a word these new Oompa-Loompas are singing. Presumably the lyrics are just as reproachful… or perhaps not. Because whereas Wilder’s Wonka told us that there were “little surprises around every corner but nothing dangerous,” you could never quite be sure about that — we never do see drowned-in-chocolate Augustus Gloop or blueberry-ized Violet Beauregarde and the other damaged kids again in the 1971, which speaks a lot louder than Wonka’s half-hearted assurance that they’re fine. Here, though, no matter what awful thing befalls them, the kids are clearly fine in the end, and seem to consider their experiences no more traumatic than a theme-park ride.

Honestly, the problem with Charlie is all my problem. I hate what the changes in tone and attitude from the 1971 flick say about how we’ve changed as a culture over the last 30 years… such as: We mustn’t imply that even rotten kids ever deserve their just desserts. The mysterious, Big Bad Wolf danger that Gene Wilder exuded as Willy Wonka hinted at the intriguing possibilities being a weirdo offered, and exposure to that Wonka was an eye-opener, a doorway to wider horizons beyond those of dull conventionality. Johnny Depp’s (Secret Window, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) Wonka, with his pale, pasty face and neurotic standoffishness, scarily invokes the Michael Jackson example of social deviance: this is our new idea of unconventionality, as debased and corrupt and possibly criminal. It is a thing to be frowned upon, and Depp’s Wonka has “issues” of which he must be “cured” before the film’s end so that he can maintain the position of “hero.” Wilder’s Wonka was a philosopher: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” he intones at one point, an enigmatic but fascinating non sequitur. Depp’s is a buffoon, walking into glass walls like a fourth, fey Stooge.

I love that the wonderful young actor Freddie Highmore gets the chance here to pair up again with Depp — the two of them together created some of the most touching and memorable moments on film last year in Finding Neverland. But his lovely, wise Charlie Bucket barely has the opportunity to interact with Depp’s Wonka, and certainly never on a level that’s recognizably human… because for all the many times Depp has played characters like this before, he always found the core of humanity in them, whether they had razor-sharp blades for hands or were supernaturally lacking in self-awareness about their lack of filmmaking talent. But it eludes him here. And any kind of dramatic impact — apart from the unintentional, uncomfortable kind — eludes Burton as well.

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