Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Zanuck Company, Plan B, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton’s 2005 take on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel that had already been filmed in 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with a rather miscast (too somber) Gene Wilder as Wonka. I still think this story got filmed in the wrong decades — the Robin Williams of the 1980’s would have been ideal for it, and the Jim Carrey of the 1990’s less so but still more appropriate than Burton’s almost inevitable choice, Johnny Depp — but as the film progressed I found Depp utterly appropriate for Burton’s “take” on the story, which was to emphasize the darkness while still dazzling the eye with the sort of visual trickery modern digital-effects work lends itself to. I haven’t read the book in decades, nor have I seen the earlier film since it was still relatively new, but from my memories it’s clear that Burton’s direction and John August’s screenplay hewed a lot closer to Dahl’s novel than the earlier version — and I especially give them points for using Dahl’s original lyrics for the songs the Oompa-Loompas sing as the four not-so-good children get their comeuppances in Wonka’s super-factory.

The plot is probably known to just about everybody this side of Loompaland, but just in case, here goes: Willy Wonka, the best candymaker in the world, suddenly closes down his factory because he’s tired of his competitors hiring spies to infiltrate his workforce and steal all his ideas. Then it mysteriously reopens, but seemingly without employees: no one ever goes into or leaves the factory, even though it’s clearly in operation: its smokestacks emit smoke and trucks come by the gate regularly to take out the candy and ship it for sale. Then Wonka makes an announcement that galvanizes the world: he says that he’s hidden five Golden Tickets inside his candies, each of which will allow the lucky child who finds it to tour the factory along with one adult to supervise them. (In the book it was two adults; August cut it to one, meaning that each kid has to pick either a mom or a dad — or in the case of Our Hero, Charlie Bucket, his Grandpa Joe, who in this version was a former worker in Wonka’s factory who’s always wanted to see the place again.)

Four of the kids who find the Golden Tickets are total creeps: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) from Düsseldorf, Germany; spoiled rich-bitch Veruca Salt (Julia Winters); fiercely competitive Violet Beauregard (AnnaSophia Robb), who’s going for the world’s longest chew on a single piece of gum record; and TV addict Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), who in this version not only watches TV incessantly but plays video games and has acquired a very violent temper by doing so. The fifth is Our Hero, Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), who’s living with his parents and both sets of grandparents in a Dickensian shack, surviving exclusively on cabbage soup and living a life so impoverished that the Cratchits seem like spoiled suburbanites by comparison.

Charlie gets one candy bar a year, and naturally he hopes he’ll find the Golden Ticket — which he doesn’t; like Dahl, Burton and August keep us in suspense as to just how he and the Golden Ticket he’s obviously meant to have, this being a fairy tale, will come together (ultimately he finds a $10 bill in the street — in Dahl’s book it was a $1 bill, but inflation has taken its toll since then and today a $1 bill barely buys you one candy bar, let alone 10 — and for some reason August missed the plot complication in Dahl’s book that Charlie isn’t thinking of Golden Tickets; he wolfs down the first candy bar just because he’s hungry and it’s the second bar he can’t resist buying with his found money that contains the Golden Ticket) — and on the appointed day, February 1, all five kids and their minders (so to speak) assemble in front of the Wonka factory for the Grand Tour. Inside they see chocolate mixed by waterfall, whipped cream whipped by whips (my S/M friends would love that one!), giant-sized candies, gumballs that never shrink no matter how much you suck on them, and all the other wonders of Wonka’s factory. I think Burton and August brought out the magic glass elevator too late in the story, but otherwise they adapted the book quite closely until the bizarre ending, which was a “gimmick” tag much like The Wizard of Oz (one of many old movies referenced in this one: our first glimpse of the inside of the Wonka factory, with the little Oompa-Loompas working away, seemed so much like Dorothy’s first glimpse of Munchkinland both Charles and I registered the reference: I said, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” and he said, “We’d better get out of here before the house falls on us”) only the moral lesson is in support of family, not home.

It seems that Burton and August decided Willy Wonka needed a backstory, so they gave him one: he’s the son of Wilbur Wonka, D.D.S. (Christopher Lee), who not only absolutely refuses to allow his son to eat candy under any circumstances whatsoever, he also is forced to wear a ridiculous outboard brace that encloses his entire face and makes his head look like a bird in a cage. (According to an trivia poster, Tim Burton was actually made to wear such a brace during his childhood.) As a result, Willy Wonka runs away and becomes a world-famous chocolatier, only he freezes up and goes into a psychological fugue state whenever the word “family” is mentioned. In the altered Burton/August ending, Charlie is offered the chance to take over Wonka’s super-factory when Wonka dies, and to live in the factory with him and learn the business, but only if he leaves his factory behind — and Charlie refuses (throughout the entire movie Charlie has been shown as so ineffably — or insufferably — altruistic he makes a Frank Capra hero look like Donald Trump by comparison) until Wonka eventually relents and says he can move his family into the factory with him. The ending is a bit on the sappy side, but for the most part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sheer delight start-to-finish, one which manages to harness the apparatus of digital-era filmmaking (like Mr. Smith in the Matrix films, all the Oompa-Loompas are played by the same actor, “Deep Roy,” and digitally duplicated to provide the hordes we see in the movie; also, when they sing the songs Danny Elfman set to Roald Dahl’s original lyrics, all the voices are Elfman’s, overdubbed scores of times) in the service of a great story rather than just doing digital effects for their own sake.

The in-joke references to other movies that abound — the nut-sorting squirrels’ attack on Veruca Salt is clearly a reference to The Birds, among the scenes Mike Teavee gets inserted into as he’s televised is the shower scene from Psycho, and after he’s stretched on the taffy-pulling machine he resembles one of the mannequins from Burton’s own The Nightmare Before Christmas — add to the fun (though Charles and I both wondered whether they would just sail over the heads of people who hadn’t seen the films they were referencing), and by far the best movie reference — and the film’s funniest gag — is the sequence in which the chocolate bar is being televised, which not only references 2001: A Space Odyssey (the chocolate bar is raised into an upright position like the monolith from Kubrick’s film, and when it’s televised it’s inserted into the film’s “Dawn of Man” sequence) but actually uses the same recording of the famous theme, the opening of Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” that Kubrick used: the 1959 British Decca LP with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. (On the closing credit roll of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both Karajan and Decca were credited; on the credits of 2001 the only acknowledgment for the recording was to “The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra” — for some ridiculous reason, Decca would only license the recording if neither they nor Karajan were credited, which meant that Deutsche Grammophon, which had Karajan under contract when 2001 came out in 1968, were able to pass off Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic remake as “the 2001 version” and gain the added sales the film promoted.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an example of modern-day studio filmmaking at its best, and also an example of the power of a star-director team — the collaboration of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton has been as productive of great movies as John Wayne/John Ford, Humphrey Bogart/John Huston or Rock Hudson/Douglas Sirk — which one rarely sees in this day and age when the long-term contracts of the studio system are dim history. Even though Depp’s most famous films, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, haven’t been Burton films, there’s a depth and richness to their work together — built mostly around Burton’s skill at creating misfit characters and Depp’s at playing them — that’s missing from his work with other directors. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also gave Danny Elfman one of his best opportunities in film; not only did he get to create the dark, brooding orchestral score he usually does in Burton’s movies, he also got to write some nicely chilling songs and remind us of his start with a rock band called Oingo Boingo. This isn’t a ground-breaking movie by any means, but it is a lot of fun, a rare example of making a fairy-tale fantasy work on film (there’ve been all too many clunky attempts that failed — including, if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me, the earlier version of this story) and capturing just the right sense of whimsy and wonder to bring a classic of children’s literature to life.