Glucose To The Edit: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

First off, it’s impossible to watch Tim Burton’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s sugary fantasy without reference to Mel Stuart’s charming and literate 1971 musical which, by way of relentless repetition in Christmas television scheduling, became a favourite with families and a cult hit. Personally, I might have seen the Gene Wilder version ten times and could sing you a couple of the songs on the soundtrack if you'd like so I found myself consciously fighting the urge to make comparisons between old and new while watching Burton’s explicit alter ego Johnny Depp emerge blinking from the lavish factory to start the ball rolling. This is where he does the somersault, I thought to myself. The other couple of hundred people watching, old and young, probably thought the same thing. Depp, of course, does not tumble because this isn’t a shot for shot remake, it isn’t a remake at all; it’s Dahl’s original book lavishly adapted by Hollywood’s pre-eminent fantasist and given a tepid psychological edge that’s tweaked to deliver a simple modern morality tale. No time for parlour tricks like somersaults when there’s $40m worth of special effects to get through.

Ah well, the tumble is hardly missed. The story, for the most part faithfully adapted by Burton’s regular scenarist John August and familiar to all of us, tells of a poor young lad named Charlie (the cheerful Freddie Highmore) who lives in high Dickensian squalor in a tumbledown cottage down the street from Willie Wonka's enormous chocolate factory. Charlie, his loving mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and good-natured father (Noah Taylor) share the shack with both sets of bed-ridden grandparents, one of which, Grandpa Joe is played by the astonishingly spry Irish actor David Kelly. One day the reclusive Wonka, unseen for years, announces a worldwide contest in which five lucky children will get a peek inside the gates of the fabulous factory, guided personally around by the confectioner himself. Special golden tickets have been hidden in five chocolate bars and delivered around the world. Naturally, Charlie, who has never had a stroke of good fortune in his young life, eats cabbage soup all day and sleeps under a hole in the roof at night, is one of the lucky five. Grandpa Joe is coming too, a return in his case as he once worked for Wonka.

And this is where the fun starts. Unlike the cherubic Charlie, the other four and their parents are monsters: there’s sticky glutton Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), a Germanic eating machine who is constantly stuffing his fat little face, spoiled rich miss Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), who flaps her eyelashes and bears her maw in a bitchy pout until Daddy (James Fox) buys her what she wants, tracksuit-clad and super-competitive Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), a champion gum chewer and kickboxer and spurred on by her robotic mother (Missy Pyle) and finally, junior overachiever Mike Teevee (Jordan Fry), overeducated, over-stimulated and overbearing. The children's individual, and unsettling appearance seems modelled after Loretta Lux's disturbing portraits of glossy children, with their beautifully realised costumes and ultimate body-shapes inspired by the grotesque excesses of cartoons and the bizarre alternate universe of comic-books. Plucking the eventual winner from this ghastly line-up is no great challenge to the audience, which means the delights in the film come from making the tour yourself and seeing what Burton imagines is behind the gates. The wonderfully realised sets include the candy garden with the chocolate waterfall, the ships journey along the chocolate river and, most impressively, a room where one hundred specially trained squirrels (actual squirrels, not animatronics or special effects) sit perched on tiny stools, shelling hazelnuts. The place is run by the tiny workers, the Oompa Loompas, who are all played by the same diminutive actor, Deep Roy, who seem to have spent the time between shifts on the factory floor watching Busby Berkeley musicals from the 1930s.

The nub of the story is that bad, nasty and greedy children are punished for their hideousness with their parents coming to realise how they have enabled their offspring to develop into junior psychopaths. As we know, all during the tour each vile child is eliminated by their overriding personality flaw – greed, selfishness, disobedience or aggression. Each time one of the little bastards gets the chop, the Oompa Loompas serenades them with an admonishing song, taken from Dahl’s original lyrics. During these interludes, which are a bit too methodical and regular for me, Burton let’s fly with his scattershot imagination, replacing the classical and Shakespearean references from Wilder’s film with homages to Hollywood classics like Esther Williams kaleidoscopic swimming pool fantasies and even, bizarrely, the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and the shower scene in Psycho. The simple songs and messages of the original tunes are gone though, replaced with a dizzying pastiche of pop videos, Broadway show tunes, stadium-pleasing rock ballads and, I don’t know, kabuki theatre or the Eskimo Olympics? It’s hard to keep up. Through newly written flashbacks we learn that Willy's new life of day-glo whimsy is a reaction to an emotionally impoverished childhood, complete with toweringly strict father (played by Christopher Lee), a sadistic dentist who hated sweets. But Willy, twenty years on, needs more than a hug from his support group. He needs an heir and a protégée and finds his kindred spirit in Charlie, a cheerful child, optimistic and good hearted who is struggling to overcome a more prosaic poverty himself, the 'I'm hungry' kind.

Depp, a brilliant actor and the only viable option for the role today, displays all his usual courage and individuality but it’s not all successful. His blank shining face is hiding something more than a crappy childhood, and far more troubling that his tombstone-like array of teeth is the question mark that hangs over his motivations. The story has always had disturbing undertones, bad things happen to bad children, but Depp cannot muster the same love and affection that Gene Wilder engendered in the other version. A scene like the still-startling ending to the 1971 film, where Wonka switches from a cold, aggressive businessman to benevolent all-giving provider in the briefest moment, and to devastating effect, is missing here. Depp plays Wonka as the puppetmaster: the engineer of fate – a karmic avenger come to teach the wicked a lesson while bringing a just reward to Charlie and his humble family. Depp is suitably attired for such a dark mission, with his Edwardian dress coat, top hat and smear of lipstick he reminded me of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There is also a visual hint to Edward Scissorhands, who shares his isolation with the billionaire chocolate maker. But in the end Depp’s is an individual performance that won’t work for everyone and Burton has him ask more questions than he answers. For some reason, Wonka has been given an elaborate back story - complete with pubescent traumas and psyche-shattering misunderstandings - that attempts to ask how and why Willy Wonka became the reclusive, damaged man-child he is. Opening these wounds requires extensive surgery later, a time-consuming and distracting resolution of the father-son conflict that haunts all of Burton’s films and doesn’t really fit in here. He should have read his own script: “Candy doesn't have to have a point,” the wise-before-his-years Charlie says to the attention-defecit Mike Teevee, “that's why it's called candy.”

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