Monday, July 18, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Tim Burton is a freaking crap shoot for me. For every Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, or Sleepy Hollow hr directs, we get a Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks!, or Batman Returns. For me, Burton does his best work on his own projects, his stylized, Charles Addams/Edward Gorey view of the world isn’t always the best match to adapting a pre-existing work.

Going to Charlie, I’ll admit that there was some trepidation waiting for Burton to drop his other shoe on the story. Would Veruca be a goth now, for instance? Maybe because the Dahl story is a tale of comeuppance in the first place, the movie Burton gave us is not very different from the Gene Wilder version. In turn, that must mean the ’71 version is not that different from Roald Dahl’s novel despite what detractors of 1971 version have stated; Burton has gone on record that this version hews closer to the novel.

Considering that Charlie had an actual budget compared to the first movie and had a director who didn’t make his name directing documentaries, there is very little new in Charlie. We do get to see Charlie’s father, killed off in the ’71 version, probably because the sub-text was that the Bucket family would only be so poor if there were no father to provide for them. We also get to see the final fate of the other children, shown in the book, but never discussed in the movie. Best of all, no one is trying to pass off England as the United States, something that always bothered me in the original.

Yet, the new version pales beside the original in a few areas. For instance, there is never the sense of pandemonium over the tickets in Charlie. I was ten when Willie Wonka was released, but even I saw that the media was driving the story in many ways. In the twenty-four hour world we live in, one would think that Burton and screenwriter John August would have seen the potential for satire in the ticket watch, but that is never touched upon. In fact, there is never even any building tension as the tickets are found.

Similarly, we never get the feeling that Charlie deserves his ultimate reward. Yes, he is a good kid and, yes, his life is bad, but there is nothing special about Charlie. In the original version, you felt sadder for Charlie and while making models out of malformed toothpaste tops is pitiful, I still didn’t get the feeling that Charlie deserves his reward. I think it says something that the movie that which actually has Charlie’s name in the title ends up being less about him than the one without his name.

In the end, everything about a Wille Wonka movie falls upon the shoulders of the person playing Wonka. It is with Wonka that the hand of Burton is most evident with an honestly illogical explanation for the candy maker is added to the story. Assuming that an explanation is even required, it is hard to believe that the actions of Wonka’s father could lead to the out of touch character Johnny Depp presents. In fact, the explanation leads to even more questions such as: How did the out-of-phase-with-reality Wonka ever have the wherewithal to create a candy empire, let alone meet a payroll or why does Wonka hang up on the word “parents” when we never saw any evidence of his mother inflecting psyche pain on him like his father?

The truth is, as I see it, the critics didn’t go ga-ga over Charlie because it is anything special, but because it starred Johnny Depp. Had this been a remake of Willie Wonka, songs included and starring Kevin Kline, I doubt we would have seen the same gushing for this movie; probably the complaints would have been that Hollywood has no new ideas. Depp’s Wonka is interesting, but it isn’t the character from the book; it is “a” Wonka rather than “the” Wonka.

Though I am loath to compare characterizations, with Gene Wilder’s version you always saw madness and cynicism and sadness in his eyes, the look of a genius. There was a sense of danger to Wilder’s Wonka, singing little songs to himself as his boat speeds out of control. When he sang “Pure Imagination,” you felt the love for the world he’d created after he closed himself off from the outside. When he described the plight of the Oompa-Loompas, you felt that he truly cared and wanted to protect them. When he told Charlie he wasn’t getting any younger you felt sad because the world was going to lose someone special.

Depp’s Wonka has none of those traits. He is more the boy let out of the plastic bubble than a possible danger. His speech about getting older is lessened because Wonka comes off as more self-centered than concerned about what would happen to the Oompa-Loompas or the magic of his world when he passes. In the end, Depp presents us with a bundle of affectations, but no real character. His Wonka might have been interesting had it actually resembled the personality of the character from the book or if it could actually be the result of the backstory we were shown. As it is, it is an entity unto itself and out of place. What needs to be done is for the art direction and the entire Bucket family of this new version to be digitally inserted into the original version, thereby retaining the best aspects of both films.

As an aside, though Charlie made a ton of money this weekend, it looks as though it will pull in less than FF did a week ago and Fantastic Four is estimated to have broken the hundred million dollar threshold this past weekend. I’m not saying anything, but when Charlie ended there were no applause. Sometimes, the audience does know best.