Tim Burton has always been a dependable source for cinematic journeys into the obscure. Even a simple surface study of his filmography yields the work of a truly visionary filmmaker. From his breakthrough directorial effort for 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure all the way up to 2003’s Big Fish, Burton has consistently pushed the creative envelope with the intentions of taking us, the audience, to an unknown world.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based upon the beloved book by the late Roald Dahl, appears to be the perfect vehicle for Burton and his active brain. After all, Dahl had an amazing imagination and a true gift for presenting children with stories that exercised their own imaginations – something that is sorely lacking today. The book, along with the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, contains mind-boggling visuals and quirky characters in a place that every kid on Earth wants to visit – the holy house of chocolate. Burton’s take on the material is not a remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder project, but rather a different, possibly more faithful, take on Dahl’s classic.
Charlie Bucket (Highmore) comes from a poor family. His elderly relatives all share a bed in their crumbling house, which is already crooked to begin with. His father (Taylor) works at the local toothpaste factory, but is soon replaced by machines who can do the same job at a cheaper price. Charlie spends much of his time dreaming about delicious chocolate, particularly Willy Wonka’s chocolate, which is the best there is.
Charlie’s Grandpa Joe (Kelly) used to work for Wonka at his palatial factory (Depp), but shortly after he lost his job Wonka supposedly closed the factory. But Wonka is most definitely back in business, and he sets loose a frenzy as news spreads that he has hidden five golden tickets in a production of Wonka Bars, which are shipped all over the world. What does the ticket get you? Only a tour of Wonka’s mysterious factory and a “special prize” for one of the lucky winners. By way of luck, young Charlie finds a golden ticket. Along with Grandpa Joe and the diverse group of other winners, Charlie braces for the adventure of a lifetime.
Burton has pulled out all stops visually. This is one of the most strikingly gorgeous films I have seen in years, with a vivid color palette and a never-ending labyrinth of doors, elevators, and chocolate. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who has worked on several other Burton films, rightfully exploits the spacious sets. The camera gives us stunning views, often blended seamlessly with the quality special effects, of an alien world, yet one we would all love to visit. Burton keeps things moving at a decent clip, but never rushes through these set design masterpieces.
Johnny Depp is cast as Willy Wonka, a character that was all but enshrined by Gene Wilder in the 1971 offering. Depp, decked out in a top hat and a colorful, but never obtrusive, outfit is given a marvelously off-the-hook introduction. From there, however, things go downhill – and it’s not necessarily Depp’s fault. Depp’s command of the screen is as present as ever and he is clearly having a blast with this production. He is chewing scenery in the form of chunks the size of, say, gobstoppers. However, screenwriter John August never arms Depp with much more than glorified one-liners, and as a result Depp’s performance comes off as repetitive and tiring, especially by the time we reach the third act. This is not to say that Depp is miscast, but rather the character of Willy Wonka is lazily written by August. Depp can take virtually any sentence and turn it into a demented delight, which is why a more sparing use of quips and trailer-friendly banter would have kept the character of Willy fresher. At nearly two hours, Depp’s fiendish vocal shenanigans alone cannot sustain the film.
Luckily, they don’t really have to. Along with the visuals, the supporting cast is terrific. Freddie Highmore conveys the emotions of a starstruck youngster convincingly, with his wild eyes and winning smile adding depth to his character. David Kelly steals the opening act with his lovable voice and heart of a child, but unfortunately he becomes a spectator for the latter two-thirds of the film. Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor add zest as Charlie’s parents.
Rather than keeping Wonka a mysterious man, August elects to utilize an unnecessary back story involving Willy’s troubled childhood and rocky relationship with his domineering father. Have we become so unimaginative that we cannot accept a character like Wonka without full explanation of his past? This bogs down the story, and I fail to see why it is necessary.
Despite the aforementioned complaints, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a courageous return to form for Burton and films this imaginative and daring do not come along often. It contains an uplifting moral message, also a rarity in today’s marketplace. Based upon the standing ovation that the film received at the screening I attended, this film is sure to please many moviegoers. The tomato I’m awarding may be a bit green, but I present it with a wink and a pat on the back to Burton.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 115 Minutes
Rating: PG for quirky situations, action and mild language.
Theatrical Release: July 15, 2005
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John August. Based upon the book by Roald Dahl.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Missi Pyle