Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Review
Everyone knows the story: reclusive candy man Willy Wonka will be opening the doors of his factory for the five lucky children who find a golden ticket inside one of his chocolate bars. As Wonkamania spreads throughout the world and candy bars are snapped up by the truckload, poor little Charlie Bucket dreams of being able to afford just one. He lives with his parents and four bedridden grandparents in a ramshackle hut in the shadow of Wonka’s factory, with holes in the roof and cabbage soup for dinner.
One by one, the tickets are found around the world by a succession of undeserving children: Augustus Gloop (Wiegratz), the German glutton who celebrates finding the ticket by eating even more chocolate ; Violet Beauregarde (Robb), the world gum chewing champion (and now martial arts expert, for some reason) ; Veruca Salt (Winter), the spoiled rotten brat with the rich daddy ; and Mike Teavee (Fry), the kid who spends his entire life in front of a TV screen.
Charlie knows that his chances of finding a ticket are almost impossible, but with the love and support of his family he never gives up hope. Even as the fifth ticket is found and just as quickly declared a hoax, Charlie finds some money in the street and decides to use it to buy one last Wonka bar. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that he buys the bar containing the last golden ticket and so turns up at Wonka’s factory along with his Grandpa Joe (Kelly), the rest of the winning kids and their parents to claim their prize – a tour of the factory and a lifetime’s supply of chocolate, plus a special additional prize that only one of the children will receive.
As far as changes to the source material goes, I’m afraid it’s been at least twenty years since I read Roald Dahl’s book, so any point of reference has to be the 1971 filmed version that, notwithstanding a rather dull first half hour, remains a magical experience, anchored by a mesmerising Gene Wilder. Existing in the same is-it-England, is-it-America, is-it-Switzerland world, Burton’s rendering follows it fairly closely in its mid-section, while going off in slightly different directions during the build up and finale.
Dahl’s moral is still intact, even if – as seems to be the way of things these days – it is hammered into us from early in the film. But gone now is the gleefully sadistic edge. Yes, the rotten kids still get their comeuppance, but great pains are made to ensure the audience knows that they didn’t come to any permanent harm. Contrast this with the original where, for all you knew, they did end up in the incinerator. Design wise it’s appealing but not breathtaking, with the subtler external CG shots of the factory and the Bucket home if anything more impressive than the bold and colourful, but sometimes ordinary, interiors.
Where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really suffers is in Burton’s direction. He seems to have lost the ability to make a film with any semblance of narrative flow. There’s no energy, no sugar rush, merely a linear procession from room to room, contraption to contraption (in fairness, a criticism that can occasionally be levelled at the original). The excising of the Slugworth subplot means we stumble towards one enormous anticlimax, only to be forced to endure a laboured and unnecessary final reel that’s the cinematic equivalent of pulling teeth.
Then there’s the vital central element of Willy Wonka. Whereas Wilder made him a mischievous eccentric who could occasionally become unhinged, Depp plays him as a genuinely freaky manchild with an obvious disdain for any sort of human contact, and not just with children – his distrust of parental figures is illustrated in a series of flashbacks to his childhood, where his dentist father (Lee) practically brainwashes him on the evil of sweeties. It’s not a bad performance, just a really, really odd one that does nothing to make the character interesting or likeable.
Elsewhere, Highmore is perfect as Charlie, cute without being cloying and able to gain the sympathy of the audience from the outset. The rest of the kids are ideally cast for their particular roles and are quite good fun. Kelly barely registers as Grandpa Joe, particularly once we get to the factory where he disappears into the background along with everybody else, and there’s little sense of the bond he’s supposed to share with Charlie that was so evident with Jack Albertson.
Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory should have been a magical mystery tour, full of sparkle and invention. Instead, a leaden pace, a lack of wit and one sorely misjudged performance have infused it with all the fun of a broken down carnival ride.
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