July 15, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Directed by Tim Burton Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore and David Kelly

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Roald Dahl's 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has remained a classic in children's literature over the years, and even Mel Stuart's messy 1971 movie adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has a cult following. But the diabetes-inducing story continues to be an endless waterfall of controversy even after a major 1973 rework by Dahl himself. Oompa Loompas - the factory's miniature workers who receive cocoa beans for salary - always invoke parallels to slavery and racism in spite of the fact that Dahl explicitly attempted to address this issue in his revision. Candyman Willy Wonka emits creepy Michael Jackson vibes for his hermitic existence and childish eccentricity. Even the story's well-meaning moral about the importance of good manners can't disguise its unwitting encouragement of children falling prey to the gotta-have-it-now public hysteria orchestrated by scheming corporations.

Following his underwhelming venture into mushy Spielbergian territory with Big Fish, Tim Burton returns to familiar ground with an update of Dahl's challenging world of pure imagination. Overcoming some inherent problems, the new Charlie is certainly worthier of classic stature than Stuart's take. Burton wisely downplays aspects of realism to establish a highly stylized fable-like quality, immediately inviting an allegorical rather than literal reading of the material. Charlie (Freddie Highmore of Finding Neverland) doesn't have a paper route and lives in a crooked shack of a home on the outskirts of the city. While still portraying the factory-tour contest as frenzy on a global scale, the auteur seems to revel in its overblown ridiculousness. John August's screenplay also wittily renews the bratty winners and distinctly articulates the troubling phenomena they represent - obesity, entitlement, parent-prodded drive and video game-inspired antisocialism.

The film comes up a little short of Burton's best work. Even though it eliminates the atrocious musical numbers found in Stuart's version, its new Oompa Loompa songs (with Danny Elfman's music set to Dahl's lyrics) remain a significant setback. Burton reliably delivers a visionary spectacle, but his go-to production designer Bo Welch is still sorely missed in the director's recent efforts. Johnny Depp shifts into Ed Wood gear and does a serviceable job as Willy Wonka. The film screams for other choices all the same, from no-brainers like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams to inspired ones like Dana Carvey and Jude Law. Although Burton and August have invested considerably in the Freudian/Jungian trauma from Wonka's childhood to account for his oddity, the role basically requires more shtick than performance. More than a few have noticed that Wonka is more reminiscent of Jacko here due to the pale skin and long hair, but fans would probably see him instead as a possible template for The Riddler had Burton bothered with Batman Forever.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.