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Judge Bryan Byun's Blog

• Location: Albuquerque, NM
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Blog Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
July 18th, 2005 2:54PM

The thing about Tim Burton is that he hates pretty much everybody except himself, and the select few who are on his wavelength. I don't mean that as a criticism, merely as an observation. It's the theme he's been hammering on since the beginning of his career: the misunderstood freak, the lonely genius walling himself up from the ignorant masses who greedily consume the products of his imagination while secretly resenting his superiority. Burton's weakness -- and appeal -- is that he's so enamored of his heroes -- Pee Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, even Batman -- that he demands that we love them, too. "Love them, and by extension, me," Burton practically wails from behind the camera, "or be damned!" In Edward Scissorhands, Burton won't even risk portraying the regular, non-special folks in that film as actual human beings -- he stacks the deck by turning them into cardboard cutouts, objects of heavyhanded satire.

But you know what -- that's fine with me. I don't hold Burton's self-pity against him. And I don't subscribe to the knee-jerk, Harrison Bergeron style anti-intellectualism that demands that someone like Burton be cut down to size. Burton's neuroses and emotional issues might be a little too close to the surface of his films, but at least he doesn't bury them in modest mediocrity. In his best work, Burton lets his freak flag fly, and as with the great visionaries, even his moments of over-the-top self-indulgence are breathtaking in their audacity.

It's hard to believe that it took this long for Burton to get around to Willie Wonka. If I didn't know that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was based on a book by Roald Dahl, I'd be certain that Burton himself created the Wonka character. This film is Burton's Citizen Kane, with the Wonka factory standing in for Orson Welles' Xanadu, and instead of Rosebud we have a bit of chocolate rescued from the fireplace.

Comparisons between Johnny Depp's Wonka and Michael Jackson are not only flat out wrong (beyond the superficial similarities, there's nothing of Jackson in Depp's actual performance), but completely miss the point. Yes, there's something of Wacko Jacko in Willie Wonka. There's also something of Howard Hughes, Charles Foster Kane, Stanley Kubrick...you name the crazy reclusive genius. Whatever the book or the 70's adaptation were about, this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about what makes Wonka tick. Like Charles Kane, Wonka wants (though he doesn't know it at first) a family, to be loved by people completely loyal to him. Unlike Charles Kane, Wonka gets exactly what he wants, thanks to a sympathetic storyteller.

That's why the criticisms of the flashbacks to Wonka's youth as "pointless" are so wrongheaded. The backstory is clearly relevant, even central, to Burton's film, to his conception of Wonka and his journey from angry young boy to angry older man-child to mellow paterfamilias (not that he reaches that destination by the end credits, but the potential is there). In some ways, I think the previous adaptation didn't need to press this theme because Gene Wilder as Wonka exudes so much humanity, even in his coldest, meanest moments, that he provides his own counterpoint. Burton and Depp, on the other hand, have created a character who's far more oblique, far more unsettling, someone you can't look at and automatically assume that he's got a soul and a heart. This portrayal is constructed more like a mystery, where the layers peel back and you get more and more pieces to put together until some semblance of a portrait emerges. Just like Kane.

And, oh yes: the children. I thought the 1971 film was a lot harder on the kids than this version. In the earlier film, we don't get to see what actually happens to the kids, which leaves the viewer with this uneasy lack of closure, no release from the dark suggestions their disappearances conjure up. People are going to have different feelings about this, I'm sure. Personally, I think it's fine, and truer to Dahl's vision. Dahl wasn't a child-hater. He liked kids and was staunchly on their side against grownups. I don't think Wonka wants to punish the bad kids so much as their parents, who are really to blame for their horrid spawn (nowhere is this more evident in the current version than in the Veruca Salt scene), and this film corrects that balance.

Random observation: the film looks fantastic, and offers the best counter-argument of any film I've seen this year to the belief that computer-generated effects and $100+ million budgets are the Devil. Computers -- and money -- are merely tools, and when they're employed well, as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they can truly truly fulfill the basic purpose of a literary adaptation, which is to translate words into pictures and recreate the story in terms of those senses -- sight and sound -- that lie beyond the limitations of print.

My only major complaint about this film is Danny Elfman's score. I'm a big fan of his work, but the man is getting so repetitive that at this point I think I could compose his film scores. That said, great songs, and kudos for actually using Dahl's text in the lyrics. Maybe Elfman should take a break from film scoring and start up another rock band.


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