I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Willy Wonka. I saw the original movie hundreds of times, I read the book by Roald Dahl, and I’ve probably eaten ten times my own weight in various Wonka candies over my lifetime. I’m not a big fan of remakes, but since I know the Hollywood movie machine is gimping along on the steam of its previous successes, I wasn’t surprised when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was put into production. The fact that Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands and the upcoming Corpse Bride), a man who shares the same sort of off-kilter sensibility as Dahl, was set to direct, kept my hopes up. I went into the theater hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. What I got was a new spin on the tale, a wicked little treat packaged for today’s audiences with a screenplay that is closer to Dahl’s book. Let’s just say I breathed a sigh of relief.
The story is familiar to most. Candy maker Willy Wonka makes the most amazing confections the world has ever seen. But spies and other corporate no-goodniks forced him to close his plant and fire all of his employees. But soon the factory was running again, but no-one ever went in, or came out. The world speculated, building Wonka up to a kind of super-stardom reserved for the elusive and eccentric. One day, the world finds out that Wonka has packed five golden tickets into his shipments of candy bars. Five tickets, each an invitation to take a tour of his plant and receive a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. Naturally, the world goes crazy with Wonka fever. But what does the man have up his sleeve?
Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) plays Charlie Bucket, the child whose poverty-stricken existence is forever changed when he finds a golden ticket in a Wonka bar, pulling him into a world of wonder (and riches) he could never have imagined. David Kelly (Waking Ned Devine) plays Grandpa Joe, a former Wonka employee and Charlie’s family partner on his trip to the factory. Even if you’ve never heard the tale before, you just know that Charlie, being the poorest and the sweetest child in the movie, is going to come out on top. The fact that it’s his name in the title is also a tip-off. But with Tim Burton, you’re never quite sure exactly what “coming out on top” is going to mean in his universe.
Tim Burton co-conspirator Johnny Depp steps into Gene Wilder’s shoes as Willy … or does he? Gene Wilder’s Wonka had an air of mystery to him, and a not-so-subtle sinister feel to his actions. This time around, the mystery is still there, but Wonka is more childlike and innocent. He has shut down his company due to various acts of corporate espionage, just like the first film, but those instances of sabotage haven’t hardened him. No, this time Willy Wonka has a different demon to deal with. He’s has Gene Wilder’s fashion sense, combined with a modern day Gother-than-thou vibe. But he’s also got a strange, distant sweetness that makes the character more likeable than the first movie Wonka.
Other performances stand out too, especially Missi Pyle (Galaxy Quest) as Mrs. Beauregard, a kind of Soccer Mom from Hell, and Christopher Lee as Willy’s father, Dr. Wonka, D.D.S. Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Bucket, and she steps out of her usual Merchant/Ivory period film persona beautifully.
Just desserts has never been played out better than in this story, and this movie takes those lessons and runs with them. The other four lucky ticket winners on the tour each meet a fate strangely appropriate for his or her own particular vice. Augustus Gloop is greedy, Violet Beauregard is focused on winning above all else (an interesting parallel to today’s over achieving tots, as well as the parents who raise them), Veruca Salt is just plain spoiled, and Mike Teavee is an obnoxious know-it-all who can’t focus on anything unless it comes to him via a cathode ray tube. You know they’ve got it coming, and when it happens you can’t help but feel some satisfaction. This movie takes it one step further, showing a glimpse of each child as he or she leaves the factory. Maybe they (or their parents) have learned their lesson? Would you? I have to say I should proabably take the fifth on that one.
Many fans of the earlier movie will quibble over certain details. Nut-shelling squirrels (Dahl’s original method of Veruca Salt’s comeuppance) replace golden geese, and the beginning of the movie has a hilariously creepy “It’s A Small World” musical sequence that would leave Walt Disney absolutely horrified. Oh yeah, and the songs aren’t the same. I’ve always loved the slightly sinister, moralistic Oompa-Loompas (doompadee doo). Their little tunes, filled with advice on how to be a good little boy or girl, were show-stoppers in the original film. This time, the Oompa Loompas still have something to say, but it’s not the same song for each child. Using Roald Dahl’s own words, composer Danny “Will Someone Give This Man An Oscar, Already?” Elfman crafts something slightly different for each one. The Oompa Loompas (all played by veteran character actor Deep Roy) shimmy and shake to the music, even performing water (or would that be chocolate?) ballet. Don’t worry, those of you who are looking for something to hum on your way home will find the opening number catchy enough. Those who aren’t, well, you’ll probably have that hook playing in your head anyway. I could only wish for a bit more enunciation; since the little guys are trying to tell you how these kids went wrong, it would be nice to be able to understand all the lyrics. Maybe I’m just so used to reading ’em in the first film, but some of the songs had stanzas I couldn’t understand.
The art direction and set design are superb. What’s even more amazing is the fact that very little CGI was used in creating the factory. So Willy Wonka’s candy wonderland is something you can see the children (and their parents) pull, grab and munch. The machinery of the plant has a heavier “feel” to it than most of today’s bluescreen wonders. CGI is used for certain scenes, such as Veruca’s judgment and Violet’s blueberry overload, and in those instances it’s done well.
In the end, like the sweets he loves to create, Wonka himself has a gooey center, and so does this movie. It shows us that in the end it’s family that counts, and that the love you have in your life is what keeps you going. Maybe a remake of this story wasn’t necessary, but it stands beside the original film, a sort of alternate-universe Wonka, showing us that the moral values that Dahl spoke of in 1964 are just as relevant today. So grab a box of Everlasing Gobstoppers and enjoy this new trip to a place where you can even eat the dishes.
(Warner Brothers, 2005)