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Candy Flossed

 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Tim Burton, USA, 2005

Rating: 3.0

 

Posted: July 24, 2005

By Laurence Station

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1964 children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory bends over backwards to remain faithful to its source material (about an ultra-reclusive candy maker named Willy Wonka -- played by Johnny Depp -- whose "golden tickets," hidden inside special candy bars, grant five lucky children a tour of his factory). Unlike Mel Stuart's 1971 film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Burton's version retains the book's title, and composer Danny Elfman has even restored Dahl’s original lyrics, meaning there’s no “Candy Man” to be heard during this updated tour of Wonka's fantasy playground.

Such faithfulness -- given the blessing of Dahl’s widow -- should make for a more satisfying film than Stuart’s decidedly more creepily psychedelic version. But there’s one change Stuart and crew made that proved essential to Willy Wonka’s success: The expanded role of Mr. Slugworth. Rather than simply being a ruthless competitor of the eccentric chocolate maker, Slugworth turns into an employee of Wonka’s who bribes the five children (four horrible monsters and beatific Charlie) to smuggle out an Everlasting Gobstopper and bring it to him. This addition proved essential to young Charlie’s ultimate test of being a worthy heir to the factory, and it’s nowhere to be found in Burton’s interpretation. This is a case, then, in which fidelity to the source material proves detrimental to the narrative tension of the film.

Young Charlie Bucket (an impossible not-to-like Freddie Highmore) is good-hearted and impoverished, willing to sell his golden ticket for cash to help his family rather than visit Wonka’s mysterious factory. But with no Slugworth to challenge him, what we’re left with is a warm but toothless message about the importance of family -- a theme Burton, a recent first-time father with Helena Bonham Carter (who plays Charlie’s mother in the film), has latched onto lately (remember Big Fish?).

Where the 1971 version expanded the role of Slugworth, Burton’s Chocolate Factory instead gives us flashbacks to Wonka’s childhood. Thus we see Wonka’s emotionally distant, well-regarded dentist father (played by the great Christopher Lee) tossing young Willie’s Halloween haul into the fire. (Why the stern Dr. Wonka would even allow his son, bedecked in elaborate orthodontic headgear, to go trick-or-treating in the first place is never addressed.) So instead of a devil-figure antagonist, we hope for a big emotional reconciliation between Willy and his father, which generates little dramatic momentum and falls into place with greased-gear ease.

But all is not completely lost. Burton still knows how to do dazzling visuals: the Dickensian grimness of Charlie’s home and Wonka’s fantastic candy-colored wonderland are a definite treat. Johnny Depp wisely avoids imitating Gene Wilder’s zany, prone-to-rage Wonka and instead fashions a socially maladroit germophobe with a Prince Valiant haircut and look straight out of Austin Powers’ swinging ’60s London. Indeed, Depp’s interpretation of Wonka as an alienated emotional cripple (arrested development personified) proves one of the few instances where the film reveals sharp edges.

But it doesn’t last. By the end, Willy’s tight with his old man and has a new adopted family to play with in his chocolate paradise. Mel Stuart and Gene Wilder understood that the best children’s films contain an underlying threat and, crucially, a cost for one’s actions. Here, Charlie is never challenged -- and neither is the audience.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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