Friday, July 29, 2005

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – bizarre directorial choices undercut the superb production design

I usually love movies by Tim Burton. He has an originality of vision that is rare in Hollywood and I adore the way he mixes mythic fairytales with the darker, nastier aspects of life. These two characteristics of his directorial skill would seem perfectly matched to the novels of Roald Dahl. I am a great fan of Dahl’s work precisely because he does not sugar-coat the nastiness of life as a kid. A brilliant example is in his novel, The Witches. The hero –a small boy – is turned into a mouse by an evil witch. By the end of the novel, the witches have been vanquished, but the boy is still a mouse. He has not been turned back into a kid in a classic Hollywood-ending. Indeed, he seems rather pleased that, as a mouse, his life expectancy is about the same as for his beloved old grandmother. Dark thoughts indeed for a children’s book. But, as I said, brilliantly suited to a director who made a kid’s animated movie called THE CORPSE BRIDE.

Sure enough, Burton brings a lot to this new interpretation of Dahls’ book. The production is lush and looks expensive, in sharp contrast to the 1971 version starring Gene Wilder. The set and costume design in beautifully realised and the cast is terrific. Freddie Highmore, the little kid from Finding Neverland, is charming as earnest little Charlie Bucket – the poor kid who dreams of a finding one of the five Golden Tickets that will win him entry to Willy Wonka’s famous chocolate factory. And the actors and actresses playing Charlie’s parents and grandparents are all great. It was also inspired to cast Deep Roy as all the oompa-loompas, morphing him in a variety of costumes in the various song and dance numbers, which are all fantastic fun. Compared to the original movie, the oompa loompas now seem to have real personality rather than being ciphers for the narrative-enhancing clever poems.

But there are big problems with this adaptation. First off, I think that at just under two hours the movie is a long play, especially if you are taking a young kid to see the movie. Admittedly, this movie is not much longer than the 1971 version, but I feel that the original was much more likely to hold a child’s attention because the entire second act takes place in the factory. In the new version, while kids will probably be entranced by the singing and dancing inside the factory, when the movie takes a tangent into the back story of Willy Wonka, they are likely to get fidgety. Heck, even I got fidgety. I am just not convinced that we need a back story for Willy Wonka: it just seems like an excuse for Tim Burton to re-tread thematic material he has already covered many times – the relationship between fathers and sons – notably in the cinematic mis-fire BIG FISH.

The second problem is that, in a variety of small ways, Tim Burton has made a rather more malicious film than the original adaptation. A case in point is the contrast between the original and new Veruca Salt. In the original movie, Veruca is a spoilt child, but her father is fully aware of this. A number of times, he looks nervously at Willy and shrugs as if to say, “I know it’s my fault, but now she is out of control and I don’t know what to do!” By contrast, in the new version, Mr Salt is as snobbish and obnoxious as his daughter and equally deserves her fate. Burton has made every parent more reckless and less sympathetic. To my mind these caricatures diminish the original material. Surely the novel is, if anything, a salutary warning to normal parents of the risks of over-indulging your kids. You are meant to look at these on-screen parents and say, “Jeez, that could be me!” rather than “What a bunch of freaks!”

I also found Johnny Depp’s interpretation of the Willy Wonka character bizarre and befuddling. The accent fluctuates as does the persona. Is he a geeky over-grown kid or an adult? The costume and make-up is more than eccentric and showman-like – it is just unsettling. Moreover, time and again we get the feeling that Depp’s Wonka really doesn’t like children at all. By contrast, in the book and the original film, Willy Wonka is just a normal guy, albeit a fairly eccentric one who lives alone in a chocolate factory populated by oompa loompas. He likes children, but not spoiled ones, and despairs of finding an heir. I love the fact that with Gene Wilder’s portrayal he is always an “in control” adult. The costume and song are all for show. Fundamentally he is a canny guy. The key to this is that when he comes out to greet the kids, he is hobbling with a walking stick. Then suddenly he turns a somersault and jumps up, fit as a fiddle. From that moment on, we don’t really know whether to trust him. He isn’t just some dappy, doo-lally, big kid. I respected the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka. I wouldn’t leave the Johnny Depp Willy Wonka alone with my kids. And surely, for a kids’ film, that is a pretty fatal flaw.