Chocolate factories contain a little bit of magic. I know because I’ve lived my whole life not far from Hershey, Pennsylvania – a town that literally smells like chocolate and has Hershey Kisses for street lights. The ChocolateWorld Tour is a familiar experience to children from the area and has been for generations. Best of all is that they hand out free samples at the end. Perhaps this is why I’ve always had a fondness for the story of Willy Wonka; it’s magical but also, in some strange way, familiar. The 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory brought Roahl Dahl’s tale to the big screen, and Tim Burton does it again, with a bit more loyalty as evidenced by the faithfulness of its title: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) stars as Charlie Bucket, a little boy who lives in near poverty with his parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor) and four grandparents. The family is so poor, in fact, that the grandparents all share the same bed. Every day, Charlie gazes out in wonder at the giant chocolate factory just down the road. He idolizes the mysterious owner, Willy Wonka, who seems to have the world’s coolest playground at his feet.
Word gets out that Wonka has hidden five golden tickets in random bars of his chocolate. The lucky winners will get a private tour of the factory, and one of them will get a “special surprise” at the end. The children who find the tickets are the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), the ultra-competitive Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), the spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), and the defiant Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). And, of course, Charlie finds a ticket as well. He brings Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) along for the ride.
The factory itself is a strange but magical place where everything is edible and a chocolate waterfall sits at the end of a chocolate river. The kids love it, but four of them have profoundly bad manners that lead to trouble. Each time some weird misfortune befalls one of the children, tiny little men known as Oompa Loompas (all played by Deep Roy) show up to sing a song about whatever transgression occurred. Charlie thinks it all seems a bit pre-planned, as though Wonka might somehow know the outcome of this tour in advance.
It needs to be said that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one weird movie. Tim Burton really plays up the strangeness of the material. The factory is so trippy and psychedelic in its appearance that it might as well be owned by Timothy Leary. Most of the interior seems to be made up of swirling pastel colors. Then there are the Oompa Loompas, who bust out into funky chicken-style dance moves and sing songs in a variety of musical styles (courtesy of composer Danny Elfman). Burton is a master at creating worlds that are left-of-center. This time, he goes way, way, way to the left. I mean this as a compliment. Much of the movie’s fun is diving into this imaginary dreamscape.
Interestingly, Burton bookends the film with genuine moments of sweetness. In the early scenes, we see Charlie worrying about his family’s poverty while still wishing he had enough money to buy more candy bars. The ending goes on longer than in the original film, showing how Charlie’s inherent decency radically alters Wonka’s personality. (In a subplot, the young Wonka develops his love of chocolate as an act of defiance toward his dentist father, played by Christopher Lee.) The contrast between the sweet and the incessantly weird is a bit odd, but somehow that seems appropriate.
I loved how the movie takes advantage of modern-day special effects to add invention to some of the scenes. My favorite moment in the picture comes when the kids visit the factory’s “Nut Room,” where dozens of trained squirrels sit at little work stations shelling walnuts. The obnoxious Veruca Salt demands that her father buy her one of the squirrels. When Wonka won’t sell, Veruca climbs down into the work area and tries to take one. The animals rise up against her, ultimately picking the girl up and dragging her away. It’s a classic Tim Burton scene that has real demented magic in it.
What doesn’t work quite as well is the character of Willy Wonka. Johnny Depp is undoubtedly one of the most creative and interesting actors working today. However, his Wonka is so over-the-top that he makes Capt. Jack Sparrow look like a piece of acting restraint in comparison. In the original film, Gene Wilder played Willy Wonka as a cordial guy with an edge underneath; you could never tell whether he was magical or sinister. Depp, on the other hand, plays the character as a complete wack-job – like Michael Jackson living in a sea of chocolate. Don’t get me wrong: he gets some laughs. I just felt that Willy Wonka should be more mysterious than crazy, a guy who cultivates a hard-to-peg image of himself to judge how people will respond.
If I’m forced to put one above the other, I’ll give the nod to the 1971 movie. Gene Wilder hit just the right note of cunning to make Willy Wonka’s grand plan make sense. However, I still recommend this remake. Tim Burton gets the look and feel of the chocolate factory just right. He has cast the film beautifully, especially the children’s roles. In fact, the kids here are probably even better than those in the original. And I love Danny Elfman’s subversive score and Deep Roy’s sublime performance as the Oompa Loompas. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, pardon the pun, the ultimate eye candy. It’s every bit as enjoyable as sinking your teeth into a great big Hershey bar.
( out of four)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rated PG for quirky situations, action and mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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