Sunday, July 17, 2005

The New Yorker thinks Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is yummy.

From about the ages of seven to eleven, Road Dahl was undoubtedly my favorite author. I read and reread his books over and over again. I think the thing I loved about them most was their sense of whimsy. Dahl’s characters existed in a world where anything could and probably would happen, and all the rules you had learned about the way that the world worked, gave way to fantastic occurrences.

I did not actually see Mel Stuart ’71 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory until I was a bit older, and past the height of my Dahl craze (heaven knows why my parents didn’t show it to me before). When I finally saw the movie in my mid to late teenage years, I thought Gene Wilder was brilliant, and went nuts over the oompa loompas and sets. It was a story I enjoyed revisiting through the film, and I could see why it had become a beloved children’s classic.

So when I heard that Tim Burton, a director who I had once idolized, was doing a remake of a film that desperately did not need a remake, I was perplexed and annoyed. Sure the source material was terrific, but the same was true for Planet of the Apes, and look what happened there. The last Burton movie I enjoyed was Mars Attacks!, and even that film lacked some of the creative ingenuity that he had displayed in his earlier work. (And lets not forget Mars Attacks! was almost ten years ago!) After three big disappointments in a row, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and Big Fish, I was not expecting much at all.

And so on Friday night, it was with a heavy heart and much trepidation that I walked into Grauman’s Chinese theatre to see Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate factory.

Boy was I in for a lovely surprise!

From the second the film's title appeared on screen and spun around into swirls of melted chocolate, my eyes were glued to the screen. The opening credit sequence was done in CG and depicted Wonka Bars being made, packaged, and shipped off into trucks. Every little detail of the chocolate production process in the shadowy mysterious factory peeked my interest. Burton’s influence was clear even here, as I watched the chocolate bars get wrapped individually by spindly mechanized arachnid legs.

The lopsided shack where the protagonist Charlie Bucket lived was a geometrically impossible construction would have made M.C. Esher proud. By placing this surreal looking house in the middle of an old fashioned looking British city, Burton set just the right fairy tale tone for the film.

The arguable protagonist of the film is Charlie Bucket, an only child who lives with his parents and four grandparents. Mr. Bucket has a factory job with measly pay, and the family lives under fairly impoverished conditions. I thought all of the scenes with the Bucket family were really terrific and struck just the right tone without being overly sentimental or gooey. They were quite faithful to the original scenes that were written in Dahl’s book, and they set up Charlie’s character and situation quite well without the feeling of forced exposition. I thought family Bucket was very well cast, and even Helena Bonham Carter, who I feared might stick out a bit, was a kindly and understated Mrs. Bucket. Grandpa Joe, played by David Kelley, did a marvelous job of playing the sweet old grandparent who never stopped spouting stories or advice. I also loved that Burton kept the detail of having all four grandparents in one bed in the center of the living room.

Even though you know inevitably that Charlie will end up winning a golden ticket, one of the brilliant elements of the story, is that all appears lost before he actually finds it. The Buckets are so poor that Charlie can only afford to buy one Wonka bar a year, on his birthday. There is a suspenseful and tender moment, when Mr. and Mrs. Bucket rush into the house excitedly, announcing that Charlie will get his birthday gift (a Wonka bar) a bit early so that he might have a chance to find a golden ticket. He opens the chocolate bar ever so painstakingly, and all his family, as well as the entire audience is holding their breath to see if he’s got the golden ticket. But Charlie only finds the chocolate, and a touching moment follows where even though it’s the only single bar he gets in a year, he breaks it into little squares, and shares it with his other seven family members, leaving for himself, only a small portion. The second bar that Charlie opens in hope of finding the ticket, is bought with Grandpa Joe’s long term savings. The two share an anticipatory moment as Charlie opens the bar together with his grandfather, only to find they have lost again. These two failed ventures make it all the more exuberant when Charlie does find the ticket, in a bar that he impulsively buys when he finds some money laying in the street. Burton combines just the right blend of humor and emotion in these moments without being too sappy. The four bucket Grandparents all add comic relief with their stories, sayings and at times cantankerous proclivities.

As the movie unfolded, I remember remarking to myself how pitch perfect the pacing felt. The montage of all the Wonka bars going on sale in cities all over the world. The way they introduced each of the other four children who found the tickets; showing the press conferences with Veruca, Augustus, Violet and Mike and their respective parents. All of this was woven together as Grandpa Joe recollected what he knew about that factory from when he was a younger man and used to work there.

The make-up in this film was fantastic. You could particularly notice it, on the faces of the children, who looked like they had walked right out of the poster. It looked like a lot of their make-up was air brushed onto their faces, and allowed for the light to play very nicely on their features creating alternating shadows and sheens.

I like that this film kept a lot of the darker and sinister elements of the book, which were also in the ’71 version. The fact that all of these kids are basically brutish, spoiled, out of control, tyrants is a refreshing change to many movies these days involving children. Often times children are made out to be sweet, innocent, helpless characters, with the occasional bully and/or mean kid. But in this film, Charlie the sweet and innocent child, is the exception. The film posits, not only that kids can often be greedy, pushy, obnoxious, and gluttonous, but they might get what’s coming to them, and what both Dahl’s story and Burton’s film imply, - they should get what they deserve. So much for redemption.

It’s no surprise that the production design of this film was nearly flawless, as all of Burton’s films are, even if they fall short in other criteria. The town where Charlie lived was a cold, small British city, that remained blanketed in white fluffy snow for the duration of the film. One of the triumphs of this film, and I think its a knack that Burton has always had, is to make a film set in modern times while expressing an antique feeling and tone. Somehow the shot of the kids in uber urban Tokyo running into the stark white candy shop, fit in perfectly with the shot of the New York Candy shop that was art deco and marble and ladies with fancy hats. While we are never told exactly in what year the film takes place, it is implied that it does indeed take place in the present, yet it has this wonderful old fashioned feel to it. Similar to how Burton’s Edward Scissorhands felt like it was set in the 50’s, but they all have VCR’s. I love that he can pull that stuff off.

Things really got going in the visual department once the film moved into the factory. The outside of the factory was a bleak grey industrial castle of sorts, but the inside was an impossibility of marvels. When I first saw the shots of the main candy garden with the chocolate waterfall in the trailer for this film, I was unsure how I felt that it was so similar to the garden in the Mel Stuart version. However, once I was watching the film, I felt that it came across as a nice homage to the Stuart film, and definitely had just enough twinges of Burton, to feel like both a replica, and an interpretation.

When Augustus is sucked up into the chocolate collector, and the Oompa Loompa’s run open for their first musical number my jaw dropped. Only one actor, Deep Roy, played all of the Oompa Loompas’. He was digitally regenerated multiple times for all the scenes in the movie, and the visual result was striking. It was hilarious to see hundreds of this one man dancing and running all over the place. Not only did Danny Elfman compose the original motion picture score, but he also wrote the music for all the songs, and sang them himself. As a long time fan of Danny Elfman, and particularly the Elfman/Burton combo, I’d say this was one of his best scores in a very long time. The man has done over one hundred and twenty productions, but I think his best comes out when he works with Burton. He’s pumped out a couple derivative bland scores in the past few years, like Spiderman and Big Fish, but when watching this film I was brought back to the days when the two artists achieved perfect creative synergy as with the Batman movies, Beetlejuice, and Scissorhands. One of the great things about the musical numbers as well, was that each song was written in a different style. Augustus’ song was a brassy rockus dancehall 60’s number, Violet's a disco flared tune, while Veruca’s was a dreamy rock ballad, and Mike Teavee’s was heavy metal. The boisterous music combined with Dahl’s original quippy lyrics and backflipping Oompa Loompa’s made for more than a couple show stopping moments.

A slightly problematic element of the film, which I suppose is endemic to the book, is the episodic quality of the story. There is a large chunk of the film, when the story follows the characters in the factory, and we watch child after child be naughty and then get their just desserts. I found that after watching Augustus, Violet, and Veruca bite the dust so to speak, I was feeling a little wary about watching an inevitable scenario play out with Mike Teavee. I think this also had to do with the fact that his character was the least fleshed out of all the children, and his characteristics were more ambiguous personality traits, than concrete qualities. Augustus was gluttonous and loved all edibles, Violet was overly competitive and loved gum, and Veruca greedy and loved pets, but Mike was cynical and smart alecky, and it was unclear what it was exactly that his ultimate motives were. The “2001” room looked cool with its bright white light, and futuristic looking gadgets, but once Mike is shrunk by the Wonka TV device, the sequence that followed lost me a little bit. They show Mike in a montage of TV and movie clips as the channel is changed and the Oompa Loompa’s sing his song. A) This was my least favorite Oompa Loompa song, because while funny, I do not care for Heavy Metal and B) they kept showing Mike as being stuck in the Psycho shower scene which I didn’t think made sense or have particular relevance. I think from here through the rest of the film, I lost a little bit of the awe that I had watched it with from the first two acts.

One of the things that was different about this film, was the backstory that they gave Wonka with his father, which was revealed through flashbacks. I felt somewhat mixed about Wonka’s flashback sequences. I thought the idea that Wonka’s father had been a dentist was very clever. I also liked that some of the scenes where Wonka’s father was critiquing candy and warning him about cavities felt tongue in cheek, like send ups of these sorts of parental flashbacks from other movies. They were supposed to be bittersweet, and were successfully funny in their irony, and sad in how pathetic they made Willy Wonka out to be, with his hideous headgear. However, at the end of the film, Charlie and Wonka go to see Wonka’s father, and this resolution felt a bit forced and pat for me. In fact I’d say the ending of the film felt a little heavy handed in terms of how hard they were pushing the “family is good” theme of the story. It wasn’t necessary for Burton, and screenwriter John August to spell it out as much as they did, though something tells me a lot of this emerged at the behest of the notes-happy studio.

I also would have liked to see a bit more of what happened at the factory from the point of view of Charlie and Grandpa Joe. For the first twenty or thirty minutes of the film, we are seeing everything through the eyes of Charlie and Grandpa Joe. The Buckets are the epicenter of the narrative thread. But once they get into the factory, the point of view seems to switch to Wonka’s, and I felt a little bit as if Charlie and Joe got lost in the shuffle. All the other kids who are touring along are loud and obnoxious and talkative, constantly being nosy. While it makes sense that Charlie would just be quietly and obediently just along for the ride, I wish I got a better sense of what he was thinking and feeling throughout the journey, other than few reaction shots of him looking wide eyed here and there. The film then returns to Charlie’s perspective at the end of the family when they return to the Bucket household, but this too felt a little bit abrupt since the transfer of POV seemed to take place so suddenly.

I thought all the kids in the movie were terrific. Freddie Highmore was absolutely precious as Charlie, and all the other kids were spot on for their characters. Missy Pyle turned in a great comedic performance as Violet’s mother. And then there was Johnny Depp as Wonka. I think it would be impossible for anyone to truly eclipse Gene Wilder’s spot on portrayal of Willy Wonka, but I think Depp did a terrific job of reinterpreting the role and making it his own. Depp made Wonka a loopy, silly, eccentric, who lacked any real tact, and always had a trick up his sleeve. Depp was able to be both funny and dark, as Wilder was, while also making a completely different set of choices with the role. It was definitely an original performance, and his transformation was helped along by his outlandish hair, make-up and costume, which made him look almost pre-pubescent, which makes perfect for a man who is the king of candy.

I had a blast watching this movie. It encapsulates in many ways what a great summer movie should be, because of how fun and silly it is. You can’t help but grin at the fantastical and exaggerated sets, and tap your foot at the wild musical numbers. Even though I did feel like it lost steam towards the end, the overall effect and impression of the movie was not lessened that much for me. For me Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was more than just an entertaining summer movie. It transported me back to my childhood, when hope and wonder flowed and mixed together like a chocolate waterfall, and getting and enjoying a piece of candy without worrying or thinking about anything else but the sweet taste in your mouth was just enough to make your day. I think Burton captured the uniqueness of Dahl’s story in this film, and it seemed like he had some sort of regenerative creative episode that’s pulled him back to the days of his greater works. Dark, funny, sad, hopeful, gorgeous for the eyes and thrilling to the ears, a boundary-less flight into imagination, Burton still shows he is a visionary.

8 Comments:

Blogger Elliot said...

I loved the original when I was a kid although I was scared to death of the Oompa Loompas and the sequence in the tunnel (do they still play the shot with the chicken getting it's head lopped off?).
But I've seen the original a few times in the last year or so, and with the exception of Gene Wilder I think it's pretty bloody shitty.
I am very much looking forward to this new one.
I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

12:15 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Hooray!

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

I'm with you -- this was Burton's best film since Ed Wood.

BTW, a lot of film critics, including Ebert, were distracted by Depp as Wonka because he reminded them too much as Michael Jackson (and it really is an uncanny match -- isolated man-child who lives in a sort of Neverland and invites children within, with jet black longish hair and a ghoulish complexion). Did you get that vibe?

8:45 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Wow, critics are really saying that? Hmmm, it actually hadn't occured to me, and I'm not sure how I feel about the comparison, Depp played it a little dark, but not THAT dark.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

For example:

Ebert: http://tinyurl.com/9aa5q

Boston Globe: http://tinyurl.com/9hu22

9:43 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I think Ebert is reading into it too much, and I think Johnny Depps silly and whimsical performance was integral to the success of the film, not a detriment it had to overcome. I thought the Boston Globes commparisons were more reasonable.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I think Depp looks more like Freddy Mercury than Michael Jackson.

5:15 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

yes.....YES!

5:37 PM  

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