Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Review
'Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy,' says Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not only enjoying his own Tiny Tim moment, but also summing up the rich yet hollow existence of one Willie Wonka. For this is a chocolate factory with edge. It's not enough for modern audiences that Wonka is an eccentric chocolatier with more imagination concerning the brown stuff than a hundred children could dream up in a lifetime; he has to have issues of his own too.
By turning Wonka into a man whose genius regarding chocolate creations is actually a mask for his deep-seated family problems, the whole focus of the story has shifted. The original novel (I suspect I'm like many children of the pre-Potter era in being able to claim this as the first non-school book I ever read - come on, it's this or Narnia) along with the 1971 movie both placed their emphasis squarely on Charlie Bucket, the no-hoper kid who, thanks to his good heart and some extraordinary luck, winds up owning the best chocolate factory in the world. Not this time. Charlie's still there, of course, and until he enters the factory he's rarely off the screen. But in this picture, he's more a commentator on Wonka's lot, and you can't argue with that. After all, who wants to see another film about a lovable child who has nothing and then gets everything? It's a far more interesting proposition to focus on the 'one chunk short of a full bar' factory owner...
This is down to the thinking of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Charlie's director and star respectively. Burton is no stranger to movies about eccentrics - check out Ichabod Crane (also Depp) from Sleepy Hollow, Ed Wood's eponymous lead (er, another Depp performance) and virtually half the cast in his Batman films and Big Fish. His stories are about oddballs, larger than life figures who feature in alternate reality Tim Burton worlds. And then there's Depp himself, someone so good looking that it seems only natural for him to disguise his prettiness behind heavy make-up and frankly weird characters. The likes of Wonka (who fits both these criteria) are second nature to his method of acting. A mixture of Crane's inventiveness, the off the wall 'genius' of Wood and the inner tragedy that is reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands (Depp's first collaboration with Burton), his chocolatier has it all.
We start learning his story in the early stages of Charlie. The credits sequence is wonderful. As the names appear over scenes of machines working on chocolate bars on a production line, it starts by looking like something from those old Playschool episodes where the cameras moved along factory floor processes, before it goes off on some wonderful tangents (e.g. chocolate bars floating to the next stage on the line with the help of parachutes). After some business about Charlie's shabby lot is out of the way, the Wonka-related exposition begins. The boy's Grandpa Joe used to work in his factory, and in fact was employed by him when all he owned was a candy store. Pretty soon, though, Wonka's evident genius at coming up with confectionary delights affords him enough money to build his own factory. The results are impressive, a little like one of those stark British Steel or ICI structures that dominated my own Teesside childhood, only far grander and more gothic. This after all is nothing less than a cathedral, a vast place of worship, only the object of adoration is chocolate. After a time, Wonka is forced to sack all his employees. Too many secret recipes are getting out, leaked to envious rivals (this is shown in a brilliantly derivative scene where two shady men exchange a slip of paper stamped 'Secret Recipe') and that's that for Joe and his fellow workers. Yet the factory still produces chocolate. Its steeple chimneys continue to belch out smoke. And as Grandma Josephine asks, 'Have you ever seen a single person going into that factory? Or coming out?'
From there, the plot starts to kick in. Everyone surely knows what happens by now - the five golden tickets bonanza, Charlie's luck, Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt, Mike Teavee, and what happens to each of them on their trip through the factory. For much of the movie, it follows the course of the novel slavishly, helped along by some superb effects and the occasional trademark Burton touch. The director is never happier than when he's guiding us through Wonka's place of work, with its luscious candy meadows, chocolate rivers and vast machines that produce nothing larger than a stick of gum. The differences come in Wonka himself. He's quite apart from the essentially genial inventor of Dahl's vision. For a start, he seems younger, or at least more like a child. I got the impression Dahl painted him as a father figure deep down, someone who treats the five young visitors to his factory with grace and benevolence. And yet Depp's Wonka seems to loathe children. When one comes too near him, he visibly flinches. As each naughty kid is bumped off in ways more nasty than the last, he does little more than shrug. Underneath it all is a suspicion that he has set up their nasty demises, as though he takes them to various parts of his factory with the pointed aim to exploit each youngster's weakness.
Not that they don't deserve any of it. All the lucky winners are truly detestable, like grotesque extremes of the children described by Dahl. Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) is Homer Simpson's bastard offspring, a boorish chocolate lover who literally can't stop himself from taking bites at anything he fancies. Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is horribly spoilt, capable of producing horrid frowns or toothy grins that are as wide and sinister as the Joker's from Batman. It was clearly felt that Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) wasn't bad enough simply as a gum chewer (clearly back in Dalhl's day this was seen as a mortal sin), so her crimes against good taste have escalated, and now she's an ultra-ambitious Chav, spouting 'I'm the girl who's going to win the special prize at the end', until she does... of a sort. As for Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), the weight of the Playstation generation is heaped upon his shoulders. Everything he's learned has come from video games, making him the sort of knowing, cynical and unlikeable presence that seems to haunt a messageboard near you.
And then there's Charlie, played rather mechanically by Freddie Highmore. As a child actor, he's fine, but there's no real difference between his Charlie and the roles he portrayed in Finding Nerverland and Five Children and It, all kids weighed down with some great sadness. In this film, he's saddled with being the youngest member of a poverty-stricken family (I'm not sure whether I've ever come across a poorer bunch than the Buckets, either in real life or fiction), one he loves fiercely though his motives are never clearly explained. However, this quality is what makes him so valuable to Wonka, who of course the movie is really all about. As he clings to them for dear life (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor are his parents, two parts that are little more than cameos as they have little to do but look on sympathetically) it's this bridge that eventually forces the factory owner to confront his own demon - his father. We learn that as a child, Willie was at odds with dad, a dentist who forced him to wear a cage of braces around his head and refused to let him touch sweets because of the damage they'd do to his teeth. This character is played by Chritopher Lee at his reptilian best, and though he's not irredeemable he has the edge in terms of Victorian tyranny.
If all this sounds a little too complex for young children to enjoy, then it should be noted that Charlie doesn't carry a PG for nothing. The theme of family can be glossed over by little ones, but some scenes are definitely of a horrific nature. This reflects Dahl's own attitudes. Never one to shy away from frightening kids, the author inserted some gleefully nasty ways for the four bad 'uns to meet their ends, methods that are faithfully recorded here with barely a punch pulled. The factory itself is a heady brew of loveliness and danger. Into one room cascades a chocolate waterfall, surrounded by grass, plants and paths, all of which are edible. It's a gorgeous place, rich in colour, but whatever you do don't go too near the chocolate lake... All is overseen by the Oompa Loompas, each one played by Deep Roy in a trick of CGI. They dance and sing with every child who is 'offed', choosing a different theme for each number - personally, I preferred the way these were done in the 1971 movie; their songs were simpler and you could hear the words. Full marks in this one, though, for the choreography and picking the best lyrics from the source text.
It's almost impossible to go wrong with this kind of stuff. The Harry Potter films might have been totally unnecessary, but they were competently made and fun, and that's true here also. With the ideal director helming it all, a reliably barking actor in the starring role and a delicious story that stays just the right side of sucrose, it's all good. True, it's all a bit pointless, but then, who says movies need to have a point?