In retrospect, it should be no surprise that Tim Burton was drawn to Roald Dahl’s novel CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Burton’s films have tended to focus on what we might call “demented artists” — that is, people with enormous creativity whose imaginative flights of fancy make them seem weird, abnormal, and even, on occasion, dangerous.
Pee Wee Herman, in PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, is an oddly immature adult who seems to live in a childlike world of his own creation. The title character in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is cut off, trapped in his abnormal world (not of his own making); even when introduced to human society, his deformity makes him both an artist and a freak, capable of creating imaginative hair designs but not of sustaining a romantic relationship. ED WOOD’s real-life character is a transvestite film director. BIG FISH’s lead character is a teller of tall tales. Jack Skellington is the mastermind behind Halloween Town’s annual holiday presentation. In BATMAN and MARS ATTACKS, the demented artist role is given over to the villains, who go about their work with viciously gleeful imagination.
In CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Johnny Depp’s version of Willy Wonka combines elements of Pee-Wee Herman and Edward Scissorhands: he is a creative genius living in a colorful world of his own making, but he is also isolated and lonely — a sort of damaged child hiding in an adult’s body — like Edward, the victim of an abruptly terminated father-son relationship, seen in flashbacks (although in this case the father is played by horror star Christopher Lee instead of the late horror star Vincent Price).
Whereas’ Gene Wilder’s Wonka (in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, was a Trickster — an ambiguous character whose bizarre mood swings always seemed carefully orchestrated, indicating a “method to his madness” — Depp’s Wonka really is half nuts, drifting uncontrollably into flashbacks almost like a cliched Vietnam veteran. Although in other aspects, John August’s script is more faithful to the source than the Wilder movie was, this new approach to Wonka moves the film away from Roald Dahl territory, making it even more clearly a Tim Burton film. (Whether or not that’s a good thing, may be a matter of personal taste.)
Unlike director Mel Stuart with WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCLATE FACTORY, Burton has a handle on the material from frame one, instantly pulling you into the fantasy world and making it seem utterly believable within the confines of the story. Unburdened with as many musical numbers (the Oompa-Loompas still sings, and there is a brief ditty when the Golden Ticket winners first enter the chocolate factory), CHARLIE moves along at a faster clip. If the energy flags somewhat in the latter portions, it is only because the bombardment of colors is so consistently eye-catching, that the viewer’s capacity for wonder is eventually worn out.
Danny Elfman’s score is invigorating from the opening frames (a fanciful view of the chocolate-making process, seen behind the opening credits), and his four Oompa Loompa songs (using lyrics taken from Dahl’s novel) are an amusing amalgam of different musical styles. There is no highpoint here that quite matches Veruca Salt’s “I Want It Now” number, but overall Elfman maintains a much higher and more consistent level than Bricusse and Newly did in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
The script by John August slightly updates the characters. Mike Teevee is no longer pops cap guns while watching Western shows on television; now he is a videogame addict, blasting away with his joystick. And Violet Beauregarde still chomps gum, she is now an over-achieving child with a Stepford-Mom (played with a perfectly glazed expression by Missy Pyle).
Depp is wonderfully dazed and crazed as Wonka, and Freddie Highmore is suitably sincere as Charlie. David Kelly makes a far more authentic and effective Grandpa Joe than Jack Albertson did (for one thing, Kelly is British). Deep Roy is hysterical as the Oompa Loompas, and Lee does his sinister schtick really well (you’d be screwed up too if your father was Saruman/Count Dooku). Julia Winter is a a splendidly spoiled Veruca, but the original’s Julie Dawn Cole retains the crown as the queen of obnoxious brats.
The film does go a bit soft at the end. Like the previous film version, Burton must wrestle with Dahl’s anti-climactic structure, in which Charlie wins the big prize at the end basically by default (his big achievement is that no terrible fate befalls him on the tour). The John August script adds an extended coda, a sort of sappy paen to family values, in which Charlie helps Willy resolve his father-son issues. It’s all very well-intended, but it carries about as much conviction as the “Bluebird of Happiness” ending to BLUE VELVET. Like David Lynch, Tim Burton is simply better at the bizarre. Making conventional relationships seem sincere may be a bit beyond his reach.
Before the film’s release, some commentators (including Time magazine) tried to draw comparisons between Willy Wonka and Michael Jackson, suggesting that Johnny Depp’s appearance in the film was inspired by the real-life pop singer. This theory ignored two basic facts: 1) the Wonka character was established long before Jackson took on his bizarre, adult appearance; 2) Depp’s character is clearly another variation on the standard Tim Burton emasculated artist hero, previously seen in everything from PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.
The double-disc DVD is a decent presentation of the film, but it does leave one wondering why two discs were necessary: the bonus features are nice, but not overwhelming, and there are not that many of them.
There is a nice documentary about the author of the book on which the film is based, titled “The Fantastic Mr. Dahl,” which takes a look at the author’s life and his approach to writing children’s fiction, but does not focus specifically on “Charly and the Chocolate Factory.”
There are a handful of behind-the-scenes, making-of documentaries that are midly interesting and informative. As often happens with DVDs, these “documentaries” are actually little more than promotional films created to sell the movie to audiences, so they tend to be a bit fluffy, offering little in-depth information.
Perhaps the most interesting featue is “Becoming an Oompa-Loompa,” which details how actor Deep Roy played the entire tribe of Oompa-Loompas. Not only did Roy have to learn how to perform all the elaborate action in the film; the sequences also required elaborate and systematic staging so that the computer-generated effects could multiply him into multiple characters in post-production.
Also worth perusing is “Attack of the Squirrles,” which shows how a combination of trained squirrels, animatronic squirrels, and computer-generated squirrels were used to create the sequence wherein spoiled Veruca Salt is determined to be a “bad nut” and tossed down the garbage shoot by the rampaging rodents.
The DVD also features a number of “challenges,” actually simple games for children, such as searching for the Golden Ticket. The deluxe edition of the disc includes a pack of five limited-edition trading cards. Altogether, it is not a bad presentation of the film on DVD, but calling it “deluxe” seems at least a slight exaggeration.