Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If there is any living director who can do justice to the warped nature of Roald Dahl's "children's stories," it's Tim Burton. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn't the first time these two have "collaborated." Burton produced Henry Selick's animated James and the Giant Peach, but this time he's in the director's chair, with his favorite star in the camera's crosshairs. Although this movie is an adaptation of one of Dahl's best loved stories, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels like Burton through-and-through - from the bits and pieces cut from Edward Scissorhands to an ending that hearkens back to the theme of father/son affection from Big Fish.

Let me dispense with the obvious comparison immediately: this version is more faithful and substantive than Mel Stuart's foppish 1971 production, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Somehow - probably because many of my generation saw this year-after-year on television during our youths - that overrated motion picture has become a classic. Dahl hated it, and it's no wonder why: the edgy became genial, Willy Wonky was transformed into a father figure, and the Oompa Loompas sang lame songs (okay, so one or two of those tunes are catchy). In making this movie, Burton shoulders aside Stuart's film and returns to the source material. The result is faithful enough to have earned the Dahl family's seal of approval.

As the movie opens, we learn that Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), the famous candy-maker recluse, has hidden golden tickets inside the wrappers of five of the millions of Wonka candy bars sold around the world. Those lucky enough to find them will be treated to a tour of the Wonka candy facility - the largest chocolate factory in the world. Gradually, the winners are revealed. The first is Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), a pig of a boy who considers chocolate to be his primary food group. The second is Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), the most spoiled girl in England. Her pantywaist father (Edward Fox) denies her nothing. Winner #3 is Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), an overachiever who turns mundane activities into contests she must win. The fourth is Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry), a super-intelligent video game addict who thinks the world revolves around the television and electronics. Finally, winner #5 is Londoner Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), a poor boy who uses his last money to buy the winning candy bar. Accompanied by his grandfather, Joe (David Kelly), he arrives at the Wonka factory at the appointed hour, ready to begin the tour.

The inside of Willy Wonka's factory is like a warped version of Disneyworld crossed with Oz. There are chocolate waterfalls and flying glass elevators. All of the work is done by the pint sized Oompa Loompas (all played by Deep Roy, who is replicated via CGI), who never once sing anything about "dippity-doo." However, they do sing… and dance. Their numbers vary from rock to Bollywood while using music by Danny Elfman and lyrics from Dahl's book. Whether you like them or hate them (and I fall into the former category), the songs don't last long, so this places Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into the category of a fractured fairy tale, not a musical. Still, there's plenty of satire and wit in these songs - most of which will go over the heads of children in the audience.

The film's message is a positive one - overindulgence and selfishness are bad things - but it is conveyed in a rather shocking manner as, one-by-one, Charlie's companions suffer cruel fates. All's well that end's well, I suppose, but there's a moment when it looks like Violet is going to become Tim Burton's answer to Monty Python's infamous Mr. Creosote. (She doesn't, of course, since this is a PG-rated movie.) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a family film, but it is off the beaten track. It's darker than Willy Wonka, and the gaudy set decoration and special effects are light years ahead of what they were 34 years ago.

Johnny Depp's portrayal of Wonka is creepy. This is the kind of man one wouldn't feel safe leaving a child alone with. Every once in a while, he says something unexpected. Consider, for example, his introduction to a chamber in his factory: "Everything in this room is edible. Even I'm edible. But that is called cannibalism, and it's frowned upon in most societies." Does Depp's Wonka recall Michael Jackson? Without question, and some of the mannerisms are so similar that it's impossible to believe it's a coincidence. Depp and Burton have said that the portrayal is based on Howard Hughes and Edward Scissorhands, and it's not hard to see those influences, as well. In fact, Burton pays explicit homage to his earlier movie in a scene in which Wonka is shown hefting a pair of large scissors to cut a ribbon.

Young Freddie Highmore acquits himself admirably as Charlie, and what he accomplishes here may help to dispel the memory of Peter Ostrum's hideous acting in the same role more than three decades ago. This is Highmore's second consecutive outing opposite Depp - the two appeared in Finding Neverland. The supporting cast is filled out nicely. Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's current off-screen leading lady) and Noah Taylor play Charlie's parents. And veteran Irish character actor David Kelly is Grandpa Joe. Kelly has enjoyed a long and fruitful career, with recent international screen roles in films like Waking Ned Devine and The Matchmaker, but he may be best-known as the infamous Mr. O'Reilly from John Cleese's Fawlty Towers.

The mixture of the gothic and the jaunty makes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a sometimes topsy-turvy experience. In terms of how it works, it's not unlike Little Shop of Horrors, the musical comedy about murder, mayhem, and a giant Venus Fly Trap. There's a dark side to that movie's fun, as well. (Both films feature a shot from inside a mouth as a dentist performs a procedure.) By adding a subplot about Willy and his father, Burton gives his lead character and the story an added emotional component. It's hard to say what fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will make of this movie - many of the basic elements are the same, but the "feel" is entirely different. Lovers of Dahl's book, however, will almost certainly appreciate what Burton has wrought.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-15
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1