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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly
nyone who read Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a child will undoubtedly tell you that, outside of the escapist thrill of entering Willy Wonka’s charmed (and dangerous) world of everlasting gobstoppers and fits of gum-induced gigantism, there is the sense that you’re being admonished.
To some of us, the plot will be second nature: Willy Wonka, a genius candy manufacturer who has long since withdrawn from public life to preserve the secrets of his trade, offers an opportunity to five children (plus one guardian each) to take a tour of his impenetrable facility. The winners are among the nastiest children ever assembled, except, that is, for Charlie Bucket, the selfless waif whose destitution becomes, for Dahl, as much a site for exaggeration as the vices of the boy’s disagreeable cohorts. In the novel, each of the characters lucky enough to attend the grand re-opening of Wonka’s mysterious factory grotesquely embodies a sense of childhood run amok: the spoiled brat, the overly competitive gum-chewer, the fat kid.
Dahl, a curmudgeon of the most pristine vintage, often pitted his child-protagonists (Matilda, James and the Giant Peach) against the insidious powers of the grown-up world, but in Charlie, the children themselves have been granted supremacy over their parents. And oh, how they are punished.
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For me, Dahl’s critique of modern children always stung the worst during the passages featuring Mike Teavee, the crass, gun-toting boy obsessed with television. As a child growing up in the eighties, my enslavement to the remote control was nearly absolute, resulting in, among other embarrassments, an extensive knowledge of the Golden Girls cast. Was I, I wondered, as bad as Mike? Not quite, as it turns out, but I’m convinced that Dahl’s reprimand served me well in the end.
Now, in Tim Burton’s new adaptation of the novel, several of the golden ticket-bearing horrors are updated for kids belonging to the Ashlee Simpson generation. The once feral Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is now a brainwashed consumer, whose creepily robotic demands upon her father are the product of a soulless need for more of everything. Similarly, in Burton’s version, Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry) becomes a violent video game addict who would rather smash candy than eat it. The results serve to freshen up the story’s premise, building on Dahl’s cantankerous examination of the ever-shifting state of childhood.
Unfortunately, the film is hypocritically guilty of appealing to the same qualities that it rebukes in its children: cheap, promotional toys are available at most Wendy’s locations, and a hotel I stayed at last week (in northern Manitoba, of all places) offered similar trinkets, either of which could accommodate both the Salts and the Gloops.
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The film comes some thirty-four years after Mel Stuart’s Pythonesque, vaguely psychedelic 1971 adaptation, which starred Gene Wilder as a flippant, wise-cracking Wonka, and which successfully approximated Dahl’s trademark blend of whimsy and misanthropy. The main (and disappointing) difference between the versions, however, is that instead of placing the focus on gentle Charlie’s victory over his coarse opponents, Burton uses the story as a vehicle to churn out yet another film that closely examines the ways in which Johnny Depp can look uncomfortable in crowds. By providing a back-story for Wonka, the film conveniently makes the character into a typically Burtonian protagonist: reclusive, naïve, and teetering on the edge of emotional collapse.
In fact, a telling detail occurs near the beginning of the film, when Depp briefly appears cutting a ribbon at the Wonka factory-opening, a reference to his first pairing with Burton as the pitiable Edward Scissorhands. Burton’s changes ruin some of the fun of seeing Wonka outwit his vulgar intruders (he’s too busy plummeting into a series of flashbacks), and does a slight disservice to the film’s climax. After all, it’s seeing Charlie triumph over his slobbering and opportunistic peers that produces the film’s most satisfying moments.
Despite these flaws, the film marks a noble attempt to preserve Dahl’s tone and message. As in most of Burton’s films, the lavish visuals occasionally overstay their welcome, but the musical numbers (with lyrics by Dahl himself) performed by Wonka’s troop of Oompah Loompahs add to the spectacle in ways that should engage even the most cynical GameCube enthusiast.
And it is perhaps time to let a new generation experience the pains of seeing themselves reflected in Dahl’s mirror. Surely they will be better off.
By: Bob Kotyk
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