Monday, July 18, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Summer 2005 has been the single most satisfying season for popular filmmaking in a good, long while. Possibly since the advent of the "summer movie-going season" in the mid-1970's. Seriously. The trend with summer films is that most of the major ones disappoint, but then a few sleepers that no one expected to do well wind up killing at the box office and winning a lot of fans.

Take 1999 for example. Hotly anticipated sumemr films that year included Stephen Sommer's forgettable throwback The Mummy, George Lucas' first prequel attempt, The Phantom Menace and the insanely horrible Will Smith vehicle Wild, Wild West.

But the films that wound up ruling the summer were smaller - South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Alexander Payne's breakthrough Election and, of course, the massive late-season juggernaut that was The Sixth Sense.

But 2005 is different. This year, all of the big summer event movies I've seen have actually lived up to the hype. (Bear in mind, I haven't seen Fantastic Four yet). We've had a long run of really strong mainstream entertainments thus far, from Lucas' third and only great prequel, Revenge of the Sith, to Christopher Nolan's epic reimagining of Batman in Batman Begins to Steven Spielberg's massive in scope sci-fi horrorshow War of the Worlds.

And now, we get Tim Burton's tremendously imaginative and expertly mounted retelling of Charlie and the Chcolate Factory, easily his best film since 1994's Ed Wood.

Burton isn't really the sort of director who can make something out of nothing. A guy like Spielberg is such a naturally storyteller, so crafty with a set-piece and savvy with actors and technicians, he rarely fails to churn all the entertainment value he can from any material. I said rarely because of Hook, Always and The Lost World. They are the counter-examples.

But Tim Burton has to start with a pretty promising script, and has to really connect with the material in order for it to work. Sometimes, as in Mars Attacks or Sleepy Hollow, you can see that he was doing really tremendous work on the aesthetic qualities of the films...but the screenplays and the concepts don't live up to the visual style. You get phenomenal wizardry placed in the service of pedestrian, middling blather.

But Roald Dahl's dark children's classic is a natural fit for Burton's turbulent, edgy and warped style. The story of five lucky children invited to tour the world's largest and most impressive candy factory provides him with ample opportunities to explore all of his favorite fetishes and themes - childhood cruelty and neglect, social alienation, hallucinatory fantasy and jet-black humor.

Much attention has been paid to Johnny Depp's take on the character of Willy Wonka, the mad inventor and chocolatier who has not left his factory for 15 years. It certainly clashes with Gene Wilder's performance in the 1971 musical version. Wilder saw Wonka as essentially a big kid, full of love, spirit and enthusiasm, but capable of petulance and even rash anger when frustrated or annoyed. His Wonka is a funny, charming guy who can be a bit prickly if you rub him the wrong way.

Depp goes far, far, far in the opposite direction. His Wonka is essentially a cold-hearted, even brutal man, who doesn't seem to like children (or anyone else for that matter). The character is the most odd thing in a spectacularly odd movie, an awkward and almost inhuman taskmaster who never seems quite as happy or amused as when a small, grubby little unappreciative child is whisked away by Oompa Loompas to be tortured.

He abhors physical contact, or even close proximity to other people, going so far as to wear tight gloves at all times. He loses himself in extended flashbacks during which he completely ignores his guests. He takes pride in being rude. He's silly and child-like and yet hates children, and denies every having been one himself. What's more, Burton and Depp have given Wonka some of the classic trademarks of delusional insanity, including frequent blackouts, anti-social tendencies and an inability to empathize with the feelings of others.

I can't imagine children are going to embrace the character. I don't know, maybe they'll relate to his disaffection, his disdain for the lesser mortals who haven't figured out how to invent their own magical chocolate factory...but it seems to me that his persona in the film is surprisingly distant, odd, strange and even frightening.

But I certainly enjoyed the performance, if only for its ticks and peculiarites. Screenwriter John August (whose work here, though problematic, far exceeds his treacly script for Big Fish, Burton's last film) has added a subplot about Wonka's strained relationship with his own father (Christopher Lee), a stern dentist, and it doesn't really fit together. We're meant to see Willy Wonka arc, from an ill-tempered and lonely weirdo into a loving and caring member of a real family, but Depp's gone way too far over the edge by that point to convincingly play a tender scene with his Dad. This stuff kind of drags the film down just as it should be building to a climax.

However, just about everything in the factory comes off swimmingly, better than I would have imagined. Burton and his designers and effects team truly outdid themselves, realizing a thoroughly impossible piece of architecture that nonetheless has real depth, weight and space. Rather than appearing like actors performing in front of sets or blue screens (as is often the case in CG-intensive marvels like Revenge of the Sith), the vast majority of Wonka's factory feels tactile and complete. (In particular, the nut-sorting room sequence, included in Dahl's book but left out of the 1971 version, is both haunting, hilarious and beautiful.)

To his credit, Burton also expertly navigates the film's opening exposition far better than the 1971 film. It's easy and convenient to forget that director Mel Stuart's version takes nearly 45 minutes to get to the factory at all, obsessed as it is with exploring the grimy details of the Bucket family's extreme poverty and making way for a few forgettable songs.

Part of the problem is that there are clearly too many characters to establish before arriving at the factory. We meet Charlie (Freddie Highmore, last seen with Depp in last year's also insufferable Finding Neverland), his parents (Helena Bonham-Carter and Noah Taylor) his four grandparents, and all the other children who will go on the factory tour, as well as their parents. Then there's the matter of explaining the Golden Tickets, hidden in candy bars and admitting access to the factory, and the background of Wonka and his miraculous candy factory.

Burton's film relates this stuff in record time, and the brilliant sets (the Bucket house stands, for no apparent reason, at an extreme slant) perfectly capture the fanciful, non-existant London of Dahl's imagination.

I'd say the major flaw with Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is kind of inherent to doing a remake of this story. I can't really see what he or August could have done about it...Basically, the entire story of Willy Wonka is built on wonder and surprise. He has constructed a magical factory where anything is possible - squirrels can be trained to sort nuts, tiny pygmy's from far-off countries spontaneously break into Busby Berekely-inspired musical numbers, candy bars can be transported through mid-air like television waves.

But the mere fact that this story has already been related in a popular children's novel and a famous, nay iconic film, means that there aren't really any surprises left. There's a distinct feeling throughout the movie of familiarity. Clearly Burton knows that we know what's coming next, and it hurts the spontaneity of the film dramatically.

Take, for example, a scene late in the film. The only two children remaining on Wonka's tour are the insufferable know-it-all Mike Teevee (Jordon Fry) and the pure and good-natured Charlie and they are in Wonka's Great Glass Elevator. Wonka encourages young Mike to choose the next room they will visit.

Now, we in the audience all know he wants to go to the Television Room, to see how Wonka bars can be transmitted from place to place. We know this because we have read the book or seen the old movie. And the movie makes kind of an in-joke about the whole thing - of course Mike wants to go to the TV room, of course Violet turns into a blueberry. Sometimes, August will even toss in an identical line from the old film (like "there is no earthly way of knowing which direction they are going.") I get the concept - they're acknowledging that this is familiar ground to trod - but isn't the whole idea that this is an insane factory of wonder, and you never know what's coming around every corner?

Making it feel rote kind of defeats the entire purpose.

One more concept to discuss...This is maybe the least politically correct mainstream film of 2005. Maybe of the decade thus far. I admire Burton's willingness to push the envelope in terms of making an old-fashioned comical kids' adventure movie, but I'm kind of surprised no one has called him on it yet (at least, in the reviews and interviews I have read).

For starters, the Oompa Loompas, rather than being played by midgets with orange pancake makeup and green wigs, are all played by one Indian actor named Deep Roy. This in and of itself wouldn't be so offensive if we didn't get a complete (and lovely) sequence in which Wonka navigages to the home of the Oompa Loompas, Loompa Land.

There, they jump around like "natives" in old 1930's movies, and eat disgusting insect-based food like the savages in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (another movie I really like that's correctly accused of Orientalism and subtle racism).

And take an early montage in which we see Wonka bars distributed to far-off locales around the globe. We see a shot of Morocco, and get a joke about how locals are trading chickens to get Wonka bars. It's kind of a cheap laugh, but it works.

I guess my point is that Dahl's books had a directness to them children can appreciate. They don't dance around difficult topics - if a kid is an orphan, Dahl doesn't take 10 pages setting up their situation, he starts the book with a matter-of-fact sentence like "James' parents had been killed by a rhinocerous." So Burton, rather than dancing around the satirical nature of Dahl's writing, tackles it head-on, makes the movie daring, weird and a little bit offensive.

So anyway, the movie's not a complete triumph, but it's pretty spectacular. One of the best looking films of the year by any measure, and delightfully entertaining on top. Plus, it features several terrifically strange, Oingo Boingo-reminiscent songs by Danny Elfman (who also provides the fun, goofy score), incorporating some of the original Oompa Loompa songs penned by Dahl himself.

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