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Sweets and Salty
"So shines a good deed in a weary world..."

Gene Wilder as Wonka in
 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)


There are several reasons to revel in Burton's direct take on Roald Dahl (these two men's art had to intersect at some point - as it has done indirectly with Burton as producer on James and the Giant Peach – they hail from the same darklight DNA) but to my mind, two words describe why the experience of watching this colourful fantasy is so beguiling; Johnny and Depp. His recent choices have been crowd pulling bull's eyes. He is the epitome of the experimental actor who risks abject failure with each outing and still manages to soar. He's having a good run and another outing for Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow would go down like a cold Snozberry Wonkashake in a guilt free world.

In the tiniest of ironies, the original 1971 movie version of this classic of children's literature was resolutely Charlie Bucket's story and yet the name 'Charlie' (from the original Roald Dahl tale) was replaced by 'Willy Wonka', the more flamboyant character. In Burton's version, the original title now in place, the movie story is actually Wonka's own. Of course, we're all rooting for Charlie but he and his family are really ciphers, goodness through and through offset by bloated (in one case literally bloated) caricatures of the worst human traits sharpened by the excesses of surreally spoilt childhoods. All four kids get their comeuppance as five lucky winners get to tour Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory with Willy as their guide. We all know Charlie's going to win but again, it's the ride we enjoy, not the mystery. Any of that has been handed to Wonka by giving him a Freudian raison d'etre. At one flashback to his dental nightmare of a childhood, we return to Willy who apologises to his group for having had 'a flashback'. This is noughties' post-modernism with a spin and it's welcome because it's actually funny. In another wonderful subverted nod to cliché, Willy (as a child) runs away from home and we see a parade of flags (movie shorthand for all the countries he's visited) before it's revealed that he has just walked though a flag museum – priceless.

I laughed out loud three times (rare) and at a remake of a movie and story I know so well (even rarer). And it was always Depp. As outsiders go, working from within the system, Burton and Depp make a damn fine double act. The results of their pairing never produced a bland Hollywood feature (take a bow Planet of the Apes. Tim, what was on your mind apart from Helena B-C as a curiously sexy chimpanzee?) Burton and Depp's pairing is the nineties' and noughties' pop-cultural, multi-coloured antithesis of the darkness of Scorsese and DeNiro. It's a relationship in which each partner fires off each other creatively coming up with work that is greater than the sum of the parts.

And the sum of the parts played by Depp under Burton's direction is a worthy roster to anyone's CV. Depp's haunting isolation as Edward Scissorhands, his buoyant cheerfulness as Ed Wood and his bumbling, prone to passing out, Victorian constable in Sleepy Hollow. These are gentle and affecting character studies never less than wonderfully entertaining. Considering his overly scarlet demise in A Nightmare on Elm Street (there was a lot of blood), Depp has never played violent characters in violent and 'gritty' movies. Add to this, he lives in France (of all places for an American actor to live) and keeps grounded and seems far above the pettiness of the pernicious dream factory. He is also a superb character actor stuck with the body and face of a movie star. He does his best to downplay his looks with a series of interesting make up, costume and hair choices (let's not forget Sparrow's ear-rings) but he can also pull off naturalistic with aplomb. He was extraordinary in Finding Neverland (because he did so little for maximum effect, the Holy Grail for most actors).

And here he is having to squeeze into the shoes of Gene Wilder's crusty but benign interpretation of Wonka (that phrase is © Paddy Chayefsky by the way. See Network and revel). He does what Depp does; he experiments, roots around and finds the character as pigs detect truffles. A lot has been said about his Keith Richards inspired Capt. Jack Sparrow. Depp acknowledged this but in an attempt to fathom the actor's inner workings, according to critics, he's now supposed to be aping Michael Jackson as Wonka. I can't buy this for a second. His is an original take on a ludicrously over the top fantasy character and he not only gets away with it, he is the maypole around which the design of the movie dances. His pale face and surgical gloves are given some explanation and while I revelled in Depp's performance, his voice was definitely reminding me of someone's, another performance by an actor taking an interesting risk. It came to me hours later at a barbecue in South Wales but I'm sure it was an influence. Wonka talks almost exactly like Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie, that airy, mid toned, feather delivery that every now and again darts out a curmudgeonly one-liner. As mentioned, this is Wonka's movie and the only time the film trips over itself is at the dénouement, changed from Dahl's original and very different from the sweet and emotionally satisfying punch delivered by Wilder's line (quoted above) as his hand curls around Charlie's returned everlasting gobstopper.

There has to be an alter-ego effect built in to any artist's work when he/she re-casts the same actor. Truffaut had his Jean-Pierre Léaud , Ford had his Wayne and as mentioned Scorsese had his DeNiro. Depp plays aspects of Burton's character, markedly sartorially different. Burton, now in middle age, has put on a few pounds but hasn't changed his wild hair nor penchant for black. Wonka is immaculately coiffeured throughout and dressed to thrill. All of Burton's trademarks are in place though the actual factory seems more like a slight updating a la Burton of the 1971 factory set. There is a dark edge to the movie which is most welcome (only literally whipped cows can make whipped cream) and it's in these darker areas, the film scores most hits not to mention the cow's raw hides. In the 1971 version, there is a real chicken (subliminally featured but it's there) decapitated on the walls of the boat ride tunnel and going in to Burton's take on Wonka, I hoped for dark amidst what had to be a vividly colourful experience. I wasn't disappointed. Before we see Wonka (it is a great introduction) we are treated to a cheesy animated collage of badly animated animatronic figures singing Wonka's praises (composer Danny Elfman in full Pee-Wee Herman mode). I thought 'Mmm, not sure about this…' and as soon as I'd finished expressing my inner misgivings, one of the figures bursts into flames and the whole cheesy panorama of puppets suddenly became very funny, a burning, exploding monument to the genius of a man whom we see revealed in a wonderful camera move (it's simple but timed to perfection).

Perhaps the most identifiable and quoted aspect of the 1971 version is anything to do with the Oompa Loompahs, Wonka's diminutive workforce played by several (reportedly rowdy) actors of diminished size. Burton made a good decision and cast one actor (Deep Roy) and digitally replicated him throughout. The lyrics to the songs (despatch a kid in keeping with his or her character flaw and then sing about their irredeemable awfulness) are direct lifts from Dahl's book. It's a credit to Burton he didn't try to update the 'Ooompa Loompa, dippety doo' songs because they probably wouldn't have worked in 2005. Instead we get a series of ever whacky pastiches and montages from all manner of pop culture rock video formats. Due to the mix (or the cinema in which I saw it), the lyrics were never easily discernible but we got the point.

One of the four brats, Mike Teavee, has been updated to a videogamer and his fate is to be cast inside a TV living the reality of whatever's on the box at the time. Here's where Burton high wires it (and falls once or twice for my money). Instead of generic TV clips, we get long clips from some very 'classic' movies. The black monolith from the never bettered 2001: A Space Odyssey is replaced by a Wonka bar with 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' accompaniment. Is it me or did that feel a tad disrespectful (or has Burton got the pulse of the teen audience who don't mind seeing cinematic landmarks trashed?) I am willing to bet that if he were still with us, Stanley Kubrick would have denied permission to use the clips. It's not as if this was a sloughed off reference. It IS 2001 on screen, 'Dawn of Man' apes and all just as a few other shots are from the original Psycho. True, the Oompa Loompahs infiltrate the clips but the lengthy 2001 extract for me was (forgive the reference) too close to the bone.

Where the movie promises an emotional catharsis, it briefly falters. Charlie's victory over the other children is brushed aside (the tear inducing wallop of the 1971 version). What Burton concentrates on here is Wonka's need to have some sort of paternal absolution with Charlie's help. It comes in the form of clipped newspaper evidence on the walls of his father's house but it's curiously out of step with the rest of the film and we realise that Wonka is simply after what most of us yearn for – belonging. But despite the ending, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is top notch fantasy entertainment. Depp gives another quirky, experimental performance which drives the movie along in his wake. Burton's direction is assured in his familiar milieu of the fantastic and the cast acquit themselves with earnest pathos and integrity. But ultimately, the movie, quite rightly, belongs to Johnny Depp.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

USA/UK 2005
115 mins
Tim Burton
Brad Grey
Richard D. Zanuck
John August
from the novel by

Roald Dahl

Philippe Rousselot
Chris Lebenzon
Danny Elfman
production design
Alex McDowell
Johnny Depp
Freddie Highmore
David Kelly
Helena Bonham Carter
Noah Taylor
Missi Pyle
James Fox
Deep Roy
Christopher Lee
review posted
9 August 2005

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