Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is arguably Burton’s first kid’s film since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and, as a pure sugar-rush of light-hearted entertainment, it’s almost impossible not to enjoy.
From the opening credits it’s clear we’re in classic Burton territory, as we watch countless chocolate bars being produced by machines that recall those of the Inventor in Edward Scissorhands. After the whimsical opening, the story moves very quickly for the most part. We meet Charlie Bucket, the poor but kind-hearted boy who lives in the shadow of the ominous Wonka factory. From Charlie’s Grandpa Joe we learn the history of the factory and its reclusive owner, Willy Wonka, in flashback.
Soon after comes the announcement that five golden tickets have been placed inside random Wonka bar wrappers and the lucky kids who find them will win a lifetime supply of chocolate and a tour of the mysterious factory. This leads to an amusing series of vignettes where we meet the first four winners. With just one scene each, it’s clear how glutinous, spoilt, greedy and aggressive the four kids are. It’s hard not to root for Charlie to find the fifth ticket, even though that’s a foregone conclusion.
In fact, even if you haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book or seen the 1971 film adaptation, none of the plot is really a surprise. It’s obvious that the four bratty kids will get their comeuppance and Charlie will be rewarded with the ultimate prize. The joy is in seeing how this all happens. And Johnny Depp’s Wonka makes for a great host. His official introduction as he greets the kids and their parents at the factory gates cleverly subverts the big entrance expected. Following a puppet song introduction (the infamous annoying music from the teaser trailer is perfectly used here) that bursts into flames before the end, Wonka casually appears beside his guests watching the show along with them.
The factory itself is beautifully realised, using mostly physical sets. It’s refreshing to see CGI used so sparingly in a big summer movie. Each room we visit offers new delights for the eyes (as well as a memorable end for each of Charlie’s rivals). The realisation of all of Wonka’s gadgets, and his tiny Oompa Loompa workers, far surpasses the original film.
It’s fair to say that, for most of its running time, the film is, like the candy that comes out of the factory, sweet but rather lacking in substance. Towards the end, when Wonka reconciles with his father (their relationship is told in some wonderfully grim Burtonesque flashbacks) and learns from Charlie the value of family, the film does finally show its heart. While some might find this ending too predictably heartwarming, it does end the film on a high note.
The performances in the film are good across the board. Depp gives another out there performance that accentuates Wonka’s amusing eccentricities while retaining his humanity. From his very first appearance he puts a distinctive spin on the character that banishes all comparisons with Gene Wilder’s Wonka. And for all the talk of Depp resembling Michael Jackson in the film, he comes across far more like a slightly effeminate mix of Ed Wood and Dr. Evil.
All of the five main children are perfectly cast. Freddie Highmore again displays the winsomeness and chemistry with Depp that made him stand out in Finding Neverland. The other four child actors excel at playing what are basically nasty caricatures.
The supporting cast is equally strong, with David Kelly, Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter (sporting somewhat distracting false teeth) all giving likeable performances as, respectively, Charlie’s grandpa, father and mother. The great Christopher Lee manages to bring both menace and, later on, warmth to his role as Wonka’s dentist father. The diminutive Deep Roy (who has appeared in three Burton films in a row) is made even smaller and seems to take great pleasure in playing an army of digitally multiplied Oompa Loompas. Some of the dance choreography he performs is hilarious.
It goes without saying the production values are excellent. The gray, slightly sinister world outside the factory is perfectly timeless (though it is a bit disconcerting to hear ostensibly English people use terms like dollars and band-aids). The interior of the factory goes to the other extreme, with a riot of colour and invention. It’s literal eye candy at its finest.
Danny Elfman’s score is one of his most enjoyable in years. However, the songs he has composed for the Oompa Loompas (using the lyrics from Dahl’s book) have received mixed reactions. I enjoyed the inventiveness of the songs (each one is in a different musical style, some recalling Elfman’s Oingo Boingo days) but the lyrics were hard to understand a lot of the time.
To sum up, while it probably won’t join the ranks of Burton’s masterpieces, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the kind of kid’s film that adults can equally enjoy. It has a great mix of simple slapstick and gleefully perverse humour, such as the squirrel attack on Veruca Salt or the glimpse of a burn unit for puppets. The film even manages to breathe new life into a homage to Kubrick’s 2001, in an inspired scene with a chocolate bar replacing the monolith. It definitely doesn’t reach the heights of previous Burton/Depp collaborations, but it’s a visually stunning confection that’s twisted fun for all the family.
Arran McDermott 2005