How do you receive a new version of one of the most beloved family movies of all time? A movie rerun each year on TV as a special event, and that boasts fans as close in number or at least as fanatically dedicated to that of say The Wizard of OZ or It’s A Wonderful Life. You tread carefully for both the original and new film’s sake. After all, both are based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book and so both are merely filmed interpretations of written material. However the Gene Wilder one is a cherished classic, so obviously Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory was in for some close scrutiny.
How does it stand up? Fairly well. The film’s fantasy look is beautiful. Especially well realized is Charlie’s family’s bleak shack of a house. When the chocolate contest is announced, and Charlie’s grandfather says rich fat children will win because their families can afford chocolate daily, since Charlie’s family can only buy him a chocolate bar once a year on his birthday, not only do we pity the boy, but we firmly believe it because of spot on art direction. Charlie’s family is so poor, they can’t even afford a proper house door. It visually screams poverty each time it’s opened – it’s cut into the wall at a cartoon crazy angle. Burton’s animator’s penchant for the bizarre is still very much alive and always welcome. And since the story is a big fantasy, we love it.
The whole cast is more than competent, but none ever approach the sweetness, mischievousness or outright brattiness of say the actress who played the original Veruka Salt. They serve the roles nicely, but that’s all. Charlie’s is a strong performance, but since the movie is ultimately really not about him, you’re left not really caring. And last but not least there’s Johnny Depp.
I like Johnny Depp. He’s one of the most versatile actors around, and he never bores me. He picks fun, intelligent and just great movies to act in and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory is well produced and directed. However, his performance is uneven. I feel he’s been miscast. There was a quiet authority in Wilder’s performance which always made you believe he was in charge – albeit in a wacky way. Depp feels a pretender to the throne, not only inheriting the role, but in just our belief in him being a candy magnate. We don’t buy it. He seems more akin to the childlike pop star he’s denied mimicking for the role. The bottom line for me is Depp’s performance never takes off. It never soars. He’s always merely OK or slightly amusing. There’s little depth to the character as written, that must be stated as well, however what he’s given he does little with to make us like him. Wilder’s explosive condemnation of the children’s behavior, most specifically Charlie’s at the finale shocked us. It was believably powerful. Here we see a ho-hum sort of conclusion, which then turns into a schmaltzy family reunion. It reminds one of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s redemption at the close of A Christmas Carol, but what a dull Scrooge this Wonka is throughout his journey.
How’s the listening pleasure? The original, while not a true musical, has memorable musical numbers and tunes. Some were so popular they hit the pop charts to become classics – most notably The Candy Man Can. These tunes pushed the story forward entertainingly. Danny Elfman’s music for Burton’s version is OK, however it’s restricted only to the oompah loompahs. It feels out of place. Burton should have either gone with more music like the original, or none at all. This half hearted attempt never gets feet stomping or hands clapping.
Honestly, I expected much more from Burton’s treatment. I’ll only watch one version of Dahl’s story when I’m in the mood for a Wonka chocolate fix. I just hope there’s room for both versions now. I’d hate to have this one take the originals place and be the only one to watch each year as an event movie. Of course, those days may be over with so many ways to time-shift films. Not to get maudlin, but maybe film’s way of stoking our imagination is over too. Burton’s version clearly shows us everything that happens – to the children, to Willy – there’s nothing left to mystery or our limitless imagination. I’ll end by thanking Gene Wilder for one of the truly great movie characters ever. Pure Imagination