A deliciously entertaining treat, Tim Burton delivers his best work in years with his darkly comic and yet family friendly take on the classic children’s tale of a certain poor young boy and an eccentric chocolate factory owner. Roald Dahl’s novel has been adapted once before into a 1971 Gene Wilder kids film which has a large and loyal following.
Dahl himself however hated it, and fans of the original story were understandably upset about how it not only made major changes, but was so saccharinely sweet that it rotted your teeth just looking at it. Burton’s film by contrast is far closer in tone and detail with Dahl’s writing which was able to combine some pretty dark and adult themes into a wildly imaginative yet deceptively simple moral fable.
Utilising both some truly astounding production design, a strong cast and even some new back story to flesh out Willy Wonka himself – the result is something that’s both esoteric and dark in that definitively Tim Burton style and yet bright, cheery and deliciously mainstream in a way that works on levels that kids will appreciate and adults will enjoy. Its a tricky tale but one that’s beautifully optimistic enough to warm the heart of most pessimists, but only rarely delving into the sentimental so as not to disengage them.
Leading the charge is Depp’s take on the character of Willy Wonka. Instead of Gene Wilder’s wild mood swinging father figure, Depp opts to play Wonka more like a misfit who’s grown up in his own reality. With his white face, perfect teeth and flashy clothing, the comparison of Depp’s Wonka with Michael Jackson is somewhat fair with some strikingly similar moments and mannerisms.
However there’s significant differences – whereas Jacko loves the children, Wonka has an almost inherit repulsion to them – he’s not a man trying to recapture his youth but rather escape it, and the child-like qualities stem from a rebellion to his overly disciplinary dentist father (Christopher Lee). Depp makes Wonka both creepy and by contrast sympathetic with unexpected but funny non sequiturs pouring from his mouth at regular intervals.
What’s much stronger than the 70’s film this time around is the supporting cast. A fresh faced Highmore gives a surprising weight and believability to his role of the kid who can’t seem to see the bad in people – he’s so good he almost wipes the memory of that horrid child actor from the old film away. Likewise all the kids, the various parents (Missi Pyle and James Fox have great turns as an over achieving Barbie doll mother and a classy stolid millionaire father respectively) and the multiple turns by Deep Roy as the multi-costumed Oompa Loompas are great and fit perfectly into the unfolding action.
Burton has delicious fun with the assorted Oompa Loompa numbers which spoof all sorts of things from “Psycho” to the Beatles and whilst a little cutesy, they are great show stoppers that are short and very different in styles. The factory itself is astonishing. Admittedly the CG at times such as the glass elevator are all too obvious, but other tricks ranging from the set enhancements to the Oompa Loompa size variations are flawless. The sets are an effect in themselves with giant chocolate waterfalls and Indian palaces, sugary candy trees and giant pink boats rushing headlong down neon-coloured rapid rides.
The only real downside with the film is the tale is so inherently known that it does follow a predictable and tired path. Even those who’ve escaped familiarity with the story will easily recognise the way its headed (each child undone by their blatant character flaw) and how things will end up. Its not the goal though that’s what’s fun here but the journey, and what a journey it is.
Indeed the factory is so fantastical that the early and post-visit scenes seem sadly on the dull side in comparison and drag on a little long. Other thematic elements evoke Burton’s previous work ranging from “Edward Scissorhands” to “Big Fish”. Most of all though is the off beat tone which some will find too eccentric whilst others will say it doesn’t got far enough.
What’s going to be interesting here is how people react to a film like this. The upbeat and innocent 1939 classic film adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” is how most people know that story, but fans of the L. Frank Baum original novels (and the animated early 90’s incarnation) know of it as a slightly darker, more complex and adult fantasy.
Likewise the 70’s ‘Wonka’ film is the only way a lot of people know this story, but this “Charlie” is much more of a direct adaptation of Dahl’s similarly dark and more grown up novels. Its the same inherit story but each is quite different in their approaches and so, like sweets, which one you prefer is a matter of taste. This take on “Charlie” however I found the sweetest of all, one of the best family films in a while and one of the year’s stronger films to date.