The genius of Roald Dahl always lay in the fact that he allowed his children’s stories to reflect the frights of real life. As in the most enduring fairy tales, Dahl’s protagonists have good reason to fear for their well-being. These are youngsters who know that old women in candy houses sometimes shove children into ovens, and chocolatiers in fantastical factories sometimes turn out to be sociopaths.
Not that Tim Burton’s Willy Wonka is a sociopath . . . but he could be.
The setup of 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the same as that of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Five children win golden tickets allowing them entrance into Willy Wonka’s famed, but mysterious factory. All but one of the children possess a glaring character flaw that excludes them from winning the grand prize (not to mention includes them in a series of devilishly appropriate demises).
First there is Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), the chocoholic pig-boy. Then there’s Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), a child so spoiled she could make even the Hilton parents blush. Next we meet Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb) a hyperactive overachiever who sees everyone she meets as an opponent to be crushed. Rounding out the children’s version of the four horsemen of the apocalypse we have smart-mouthed videogame enthusiast Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), every teacher’s nightmare know-it-all.
On the outside of this ring of kiddy monsters stands Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), the little boy who is “just lucky to be there.” Once again, Charlie lives in the direst of circumstances. His four grandparents still share one bed and they still eat only cabbage soup for dinner. But Burton uses every opportunity to entertain, so instead of rushing through a sallow, Dickensian portrait of the poor Bucket family, he draws a cartoon of poverty that is at once grotesque and quite funny. Even Charlie’s father’s low-wage job provides a source of amusement. (Ever wonder how toothpaste gets its top? Charlie’s dad could tell you.) Before we ever reach the wondrous workshop, the Buckets charm us with their wit, lunacy, and almost unanimous optimism (the grouchy grandfather who doesn’t believe Charlie will find a ticket makes a process most of the audience already knows the outcome of far more entertaining than it otherwise might have been).
Still, the taffy that pulls the whole confection together is Wonka. And for him, Burton found the perfect candy man. Unlike Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp doesn’t appear just a little off-kilter as Wonka, he seems downright sinister. At one point on the tour he tells the five children, “Everything in this room is edible, including me. But that’s called cannibalism and is frowned on in most societies.” Wilder did a superb job creating a Wonka given to florid sweeps of craziness, but Depp’s restrained madman is more in tune with his director’s vision. Rather than jarring the audience when he lapses into malice, Depp intrigues us and makes us wonder what collision of events could have created a man like Wonka, a cheery ringleader futilely trying to suppress the dark circus in his mind. Luckily, in the one major departure from Dahl’s book, screenwriter John August tells us.
But the film’s best alterations are made in the name of relevance. Today, Violet’s chief sin isn’t gum-chewing, it’s excessive competitiveness. In an age when every reality show begins with some obnoxious contestant bragging to some panel of judges, “I’m going to be the next American Idol; or Apprentice; or larvae-eating-geek-who-wins-the-heart-of-the-beauty-who’s-after-an-average-joe,” it’s refreshing to see unfounded bravado appropriately punished. (If only Charlie the Bachelor could have blown up like a blueberry and been sent to the juicing machine.) Similarly, Mike Teavee is now much more than a television addict; he’s every technologically advanced ten-year-old who talks down to his parents because they don’t know the meaning of WiFi.
Also ingenious are the changes in the Oompa Loompas (all played by Deep Roy). Once again Burton uses what could have been a plodding plot mechanism to great sardonic effect: Instead of simple ditties sung by skipping munchkins, composer Danny Elfman uses Dahl’s original lyrics and stages the songs for all they’re worth. The outrageous, fully costumed and choreographed Loompa performances make the morals a little less obvious, but once apprehended, far more hard-hitting. More than a few parents around me squirmed during the KISS-inspired rock-out accompanying Mike Teavee’s downfall.
By fleshing out the backgrounds of the factory’s most peculiar characters and allowing Dahl’s unique mixture of charm and menace to guide him, Burton has created a film that is sharp, scary, and, surprisingly, quite heartwarming. You may miss elements of Mel Stuart’s Chocolate Factory while viewing this new incarnation, but more likely, when watching the original, you will now miss more of Burton’s.
–Megan Basham is a Phillips fellow and a reporter for NBC 9 in El Paso.