Friday, July 22, 2005

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (SPOILERS!)

Memo to Tim Burton: Find a competent therapist and deal with your issues, so you can stop making movies about how much your daddy did not love you.

Three disappointments in a row from Burton: the less said about Planet of the Apes, the better; Big Fish could just as easily have been a "fine Lifetime movie" as we refer to them; and then, Charlie. Sigh. I wanted to like it so much. I do love the original, but this seemed an ideal remake, one that would -- according to Burton -- stick closer to the book. Well, hmmm -- except for the ENDING.

Here's where I talk about a lot of things that SPOIL both movies, so if you haven't seen either yet, avoid this!


The overall problem are those changes -- creating a backstory of a mean dentist dad who won't let the elborately braced Charlie eat any candy who, like an evil Sauroman, throws his Halloween cache (yes, supposedly in England -- I know, I know) on the fire. Even Christopher Lee cannot keep the maudlin sentimentality from dripping off the screen. Burton's Wonka is damaged goods, a germophobic man-child. Yes, comparisons to Michael Jackson are inevitable, but despite Depp's gamest efforts, the film falls flat. His Wonka seems on the brink of collapse.

While Wilder's Wonka -- as Gene never fails to point out -- acts as a kind of YHWH in his little candy land, Depp's Wonka is apparently powerless. Things just happen and he is helpless to stop them. While the earlier film allowed all good children to vicariously enjoy bad children (for once!) getting punished, the new film barely fleshes out the bad kids. Rather than revelling in their just punishments, we feel (if not sorry for them) very little at all. Burton's Wonka seems more like a serial killer than a man who loves candy, one who has surreptitiously planned the "accidents" occurring to the children. He's terrified by that grey hair, not realizing an inevitability of passing the baton. The ridiculous assertion that Charlie must choose between his family and the factory betrays Burton's own ambivalence, not Dahl's.

The squirrels are a hoot; but think of all the weeks Burton spent trying to train them. What a waste of time, when he could have been developing the roles of his fine supporting cast. Pity. And what is with Helena Bonham-Carter's teeth? Like most films of late, more attention has been spent on appearance than on content. And let's face it; however much you tart them up, the Oompah Loompahs will always be colonialist baggage.

The one shining light is Freddie Highmore, who continues to show the wonderful qualities he brought to Finding Neverland. He infuses Charlie with spirit and thoughtfulness as well as wonder. He was one of the reaons I had high hopes for this film, because the glaring error of the first film was Peter Ostrum as Charlie. Never mind that he wasn't English; he was unbearably homely and a poor actor. He had to be the emotional center of the film, but he created a vaccuum. Wisely, he became a veterinarian rather than continue acting.

The grandparents are wonderful from David Kelly on down. James Fox is totally wasted as Veruca's stuffy father, and it's a crime to give so little rein to the often hilarious Missi Pyle. Way too much effort was spent on the musical numbers which already look dated ("word!") rather than clever. The only song that works is the Wonka theme (one of those catchy Elfman bits that sticks in your head like taffy) sung by robotic dolls that spark then catch fire, melting horribly, even losing an eyeball.

It's the best moment of the film.

Like the running subtext of cannibalism, which is enough to disturb but never gets developed in a meaningful way, there are all kinds of potential themes. If only Burton realised that subtext is where the power lies. Psychological issues need not lead to bad filmmaking. Look at Hitchcock. His unresolved issues created some of the finest films of the last century. He even turned loveable Jimmy Stewart into one of the most disturbingly repulsive characters ever in Vertigo. Dahl's book is full of themes both wonderful and troubling. Burton should have read it more closely -- and he should have relegated his own problems to the subtext.

3 comments:

Crispinus said...
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Crispinus said...

I thought Depp's work and the corresponding rewrites a shocking miscalculation. When I read in Dahl, "I shake you warmly by the hand," it still feels genuine (as genuine as Wonka can be), not ironic.

I actually liked the musical numbers -- best Oingo Boingo album never made -- and I liked how they were fossilized genre-pieces on arrival, especially the Beatles-esque number than marked Veruca's downfall. But then, I'm a sucker for fossilized genre-pieces.

I enjoyed Highmore very much, but I'll always have a soft spot for Ostrum. Yeah, kid can't sing ("...a gollllll-dennnn daaaayyyy..."), but otherwise his natural demeanor balances the fantasia around him. More like a real kid than a "movie kid," which preternatural talents like Highmore and -- Good Lord! -- Dakota Fanning seem to have the lock on these days.

My big problem with the movie ultimately goes to the question of faithfulness. I thought the first film had the spirit of the book, but not the details. Vice versa here, but with some extraneous details of its own. Score one for the seventies (and I don't often say that).

K. A. Laity said...

Dan,

Hmmm. A classicist who likes fossilized genre-pieces? Color me surprised. Perhaps they'll look better in retrospect. Twenty or thirty years from now, who knows...

Re: Ostrum et al -- have you seen Boing Boing today? Where nowadays "Charlie looks like an even gayer Ned Flanders?"

Despite Gene's obsession with the YHWH aspect, the best part of the 70s version was the bad kids getting punished and the really cool scary boat ride:

"Is it raining? Is it snowing?
Is a hurricane a-blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing,
So the danger must be growing.
Are the fires of Hell a-glowing?
Is the grisly reaper mowing?
Yes, the danger must be growing,
For the rowers keep on rowing,
And they're certainly not showing,
Any signs that they are slowing!

And my favorite quote: "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams."