Cheer up, Charlie. Judge Bill Gibron says that the 2005 reimagining of the classic 1971 fantasy film is equal to—or dare say—better than your initial outing, thanks to the talent of Tim Burton, a perfect performance by Johnny Depp, and the genius of Roald Dahl's original story.
Our review of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (HD DVD), published October 31st, 2006, is also available.
"Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy."
Remake—a word that sparks horror in the hearts of film fans everywhere. There are only two clear cases when the term doesn't test the motion picture mettle of a cinema aficionado: (1) where the effort in question is revamping some nondescript, flawed offering from the past—like Ocean's Eleven or Freaky Friday, or (2) when it's a foreign film that is being given the fresh coat of celluloid paint, a la The Grudge, The Ring, or The Birdcage. In all other instances, the cries of "foul" fill the air, with the artists attempting the redux suddenly realizing they are in it for their very aesthetic lives. This is especially true when a well-loved classic—say a King Kong or Dawn of the Dead—is up for reconfiguration grabs. In these cases, the throngs start spitting sacrilege almost immediately, arguing that messing with past perfections is tantamount to smearing mud on the masterpieces in the Louvre.
Tim Burton has faced such angry mobs twice before in his creative lifetime. The first instance was over his "reimagining" of Batman. Fans argue over its effectiveness now but, back upon its initial release, almost everyone praised his gloomy and psychologically dense take on the Dark Knight. Next, he took on old Chuck Heston and Planet of the Apes. While not a complete bomb, ending the discussion there seems best for all parties involved. But our eccentric entertainment maker couldn't have imagined the backlash staring him square in the strangeness when it was announced that he would helm a new version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Though he vowed to follow the original book by Roald Dahl more closely than the 1971 family favorite did, individuals enamored with Mel Stuart's charming motion picture (and Gene Wilder's wicked Willy Wonka) started soiling themselves over the idea of a remake. It would be a disgrace, they said. He would ruin the original, they cried.
They were wrong. Dead wrong. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not just a successful revision of the beloved favorite, it's a new entry in the family film Hall of Fame. It's just that good.
Facts of the Case
Young Charlie Bucket lives with his mom, dad, Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina in a broken-down building in the shadow of Willy Wonka's immense Chocolate Factory. Wonka was once a world-renowned confectioner. Grandpa Joe even worked for him. But when spies threatened his secret recipes, Wonka closed his doors. He didn't stop making sweets, yet no one is sure how he continues to thrive, especially without any visible workers coming and going through the main gate. Long the subject of speculation and myth, he has become a strange symbol to the people in the town, an icon to oddness and eccentricity.
Now all that is about to change. After years of isolation, Willy Wonka is opening up his factory. Five lucky children, each accompanied by the grown-up of their choice, will be allowed to enter the world of Wonka wonders for a personally guided excursion through his realm of untold riches…and there will be a special prize for one child at the end. All the kids have to do is find the Golden Ticket hidden inside select Wonka bars. Charlie is determined to be one of the chosen. But his family can only afford one bar of chocolate a year. As the other tickets start turning up around the globe, Charlie's chances seem hopeless. But where there's a will, there's a Wonka, and Charlie seems destined to meet the reclusive genius. Still, the questions persist: who will win the prize—and what will it be?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the ultimate Tim Burton movie—and if it's not, it certainly feels like it. It definitely recalls all the other films in his canon without outright copying a single one: there's the whimsy and wickedness of Pee Wee's Big Adventure; the visual innovation and farcical fantasy of Beetlejuice; the epic scope of Batman and Batman Returns; the heartbreaking beauty of Edward Scissorhands; an Ed Wood-ian celebration of idealism and cinema; a decided dark side like that found in Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow; a mindset capable of real reimagining, as in Planet of the Apes, and a fresh, unforced perspective on family as in Big Fish. Indeed, in combination with his usual visual genius, quirky sense of style, and novel narrative drive, Charlie sets a new benchmark for Burton that may be very hard for him to beat. His future films will have to be substantially smarter, slier, and far more skilled to top this instant classic.
Indeed, the immediate thing one is struck by while watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is how quickly it sinks into that masterwork slot in your subconscious. Anyone who feared it would foul the legacy of Mel Stuart's amazing original can breathe a collective sigh of significant relief. Burton and his screenwriter John August have tweaked the tale set forth by the amazing Roald Dahl and, with a devotion to both the source and a sense of childlike wonder, delivered a depth charge to such cinematic wannabes as Lemony Snicket and others of its ilk. It is a little confusing at first to hear classic lines from the first film coming out of the mouths of post-millennial actors and actresses, but the confusion quickly melts away as this wonderful confection sugars up your senses with an undeniably delicious helping of heart, humor, and humbug.
Dahl's kid lit always had a deliciously dark side and his skewed view of adolescent fantasy fits Burton like a pair of skintight patent leather gloves. From the moment we lay eyes on the world in which Charlie Bucket and the iconic Wonka live, we are instantly reminded of poverty and power, and the joy and jaundice in both. For the unfortunate family living in the slanty shanty on the edge of town, life is a series of struggles that lead to greater love and deeper understanding. Towering over the village like a vulture waiting to strike, Wonka's world is opulence as oppression. We quickly learn that buried deep inside its enigmatic exterior is a bitter and twisted man, afraid of what his popularity and his product create. In his youth, he was adventurous and a bit of a skylark. But as commerce came calling and spies infiltrated his domain, Wonka closed out the world—and with it, the doors to his soul as well. It's no facet of fate that Wonka's main road leads directly to the Buckets' tumbledown doorstep. The connection here is strong, and will be made only sturdier throughout the course of this amazing movie.
Finally working with the full faith and credit of a studio not wondering if he will drop the ball and deliver a dud, Burton creates the kind of eye candy that has made him an idol to millions of visually-oriented cinephiles. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is like taking a tram directly into the mind of a fragile and fanciful child (or perhaps, in this case, a side trip through Dahl's dome as well), and the ride is magnificent. This is fantasy in full flower, a world dripping with authentic weirdness and realistic whimsy. Nothing here seems made up or overtly outrageous. Even scenes inside the bowels of the factory, where space, time, and the laws of physics seem unfounded and orphaned, are still in sync with Wonka's wacky world. Burton maintains this mysticism and magic thanks in major part to his production design team. They deliver a chocolate room that gives you a sincere sugar rush the minute you see it, and a fudge river that runs through sun-speckled caverns of amazing scope and size. Wonka's inventing rooms reflect the work done within, and the combination of pop art, retro chic, and creative kitsch camp is just beyond belief. Like the lyrics of the now-standard song from the original film, this is a world of pure imagination. One need only come and see it to believe it.
Of course, the wrong cast could crush all this with a single irony-laced moment or tongue-in-cheek aside. Amazingly, every actor here is perfectly positioned to support, not divert, Burton's vision. Though names as known as Marilyn Manson, Eddie Murphy, and Nicolas Cage were tossed around when Charlie was in its development phase, it is hard to imagine anyone in the waistcoat and high hat except Johnny Depp. While some critics have challenged the choice, calling his turn here "dull" and "uninspired," this reviewer will stand proudly and say it is one of the actor's best performances, bar none. Like the equally amazing Gene Wilder before him, Depp is supposed to deliver on several conflicting core concepts at once. There is the wholly business side of Wonka, a man who made a fortune in sweets and knows how to keep it. Then there is the oddball eccentric, the individual with a slightly skewed and readily warped way of looking at things. Add in some social illiteracy, a bit of being uncomfortable around other people, and a sort of pseudo-salesmanship, having to shill his story and his realm for a vague and mysterious purpose, and you've got quite the thespian challenge.
Depp delivers flawlessly. His Willy is unhinged and unhappy, incredibly inventive, and emotionally evasive all at the same time—sometimes in the same second. There are so many layers to this performance, so many individual moments when you witness his true talent in bringing an actual weirdo to life, that you smile in brain-busted disbelief at how this amazing actor does it. His Wonka is one of a kind—as charming as Wilder's and equally as sinister. Burton doesn't ladle on the creepy undercurrent quite the way Stuart did (how about that hidden chicken decapitation scene during the boat ride, huh?). Instead, he lets Depp's devious looks and deceptive demeanor dish out most of the malevolence—and it really does work. One of the other main criticisms of Depp was that, with his fey voice, pale skin, and strange demeanor, he was somehow channeling the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Really? Perhaps someone who has seen Jackson in fleeting glimpses as they channel surf might confuse the two, but Depp's manchild is far more savvy and far less saccharine than the artist formerly known as African-American. In public, Jackson is a cherub chuffed on his own sense of innocence. He's soft-spoken to the point of being non-verbal. Wonka has none of these properties. Instead, he's an articulate, ironic individual with a clear sense of self and a shrewd concept of juvenile justice.
Indeed, one of the more amazing facets of Burton's film (and something that seems far too subtle in the original) is Dahl's clear design to admonish and chagrin certain childhood archetypes with his story. While they've been slightly updated for a modern audience, we can still see the sensationally spoiled brat in Veruca Salt, the stained sense of superiority in Violet Beauregarde, the grotesque glutton as buffoonish bully in Augustus Gloop, and the unbridled hyperactive anger inherent in Mike Teavee. Burton really emphasizes the retaliation motives of Wonka, focusing on the gleaming glint in the candy maker's eye whenever one of his "victims" gets put in their place. Indeed, the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has always centered on wickedness being punished and goodness being rewarded. Wonka is like the serpent in a gooey Garden of Eden, tricking and tantalizing wayward children to resort to their baser motives. Naturally, they pay the price in ever more memorable ways.
As the hideous halflings, Burton has found a company that can hold its own against the classic crass kiddies that populated Stuart's version of the story. Philip Wiegratz make Augustus far more friendly than his '70s counterpart, which actually makes us a tad more sympathetic to his pipe-based plight. Julia Winters' Veruca is just as nasty as Julie Dawn Cole's, but Winters has a mouth so wide and so ominous that she comes across as a kind of demonic pixie. Denise Nickerson played Violet Beauregarde as kind of a clueless '70s creep. Annasophia Robb is like a wholly heartless laser beam, so focused on the final prize that she seems like an angry automaton. And Paris Themman's dopey little boob tuber with his cowboy hat is no match for Jordan Fry's video-game fueled fierceness as Mike Teavee. By making the kids more crass, by emphasizing the facets that Dahl wanted to rally against, Burton makes this Charlie's adventures that much more believable. Though the parents play a larger role in the original, the remake keeps the film focused on what the author thought was the most important part of the story—misguided and miscreant youth.
As for Charlie, little Freddie Highmore is definitely on par with Peter Ostrum as the disaffected dreamer of a boy. Highmore plays young Master Bucket with a lot more openness and warmth than Ostrum, who seemed stifled by having to co-star alongside that certified scene-stealer Jack Albertson. David Kelly's Grandpa Joe is less of a show off and more of a sidekick in this film. He gets his moments to shine, but he doesn't dominate. Indeed, most of the Bucket family is kept in the background, with Charlie's mother and father (bet you didn't know there was a Dad in the story) splitting their import with the elderly grandparents who still act like a geriatric Greek chorus. Burton balances all aspects of his story brilliantly. One feature never oversteps another, and the result is an expert exercise in exquisite entertainment.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the kind of film that grows even more enjoyable upon repeated viewings. After the initial "wow" factor has finally fallen away and the inevitable comparisons to the past have petered out, one is left with a movie of mystifying wonders, dizzying displays that build one on top of the other until a kind of enjoyment overload occurs. There is so much here to love: like the Oompa-Loompas, all played by actor Deep Roy and singing sensational songs by Danny Elfman (who used Dahl's own demented poetry as the foundation for the lyrics) in varying signature styles ('60s pop, '70s soul); the assorted homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Psycho, and other classic films; the overall feel of the movie, with the wintry chill of the city offset by the warmth of the Chocolate Factory; the Great Glass Elevator, finally given its dimensionless due; the appearance of the clever Christopher Lee as Willy's dentist dad, and the fascinating flights of fancy flitting all around the edges of every scene. Instead of destroying a "classic," as many people feared, Burton has completely reinvented and reinvigorated it, creating something terrific and timeless. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the eternal magic of moviemaking at its very best.
Warner Brothers delivers Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the kind of flawless, pristine technical presentation that home theater fans just froth over. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is perfect, without a single spot of dirt or grain and sans any of the aggravating digital defects (flaring, bleeding, edge enhancement) that can destroy a DVD transfer. The colors careen off the screen, and the details are deep and distinct. Even situations where you anticipate trouble (the all-white Wonkavision room, the ripe red richness of the Chocolate River area) are visions of unblemished loveliness. While we expect excellent opticals from recent studio releases, there is something special about the WB brand of picture here. It is just great.
On the sound side, the studio steps up and gives us a grand Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 EX Surround audio mix that is equally mesmerizing. When fireworks explode all around the Great Glass Elevator in a particularly powerful set-piece sequence, all the channels reverberate with sonic sensations. Even in the quietest moments, the audio is excellent. All dialogue is easily discernible and the songs are actual slices of inventive aural bliss. With so much speaker sparking and auditory wonder, you'd assume the end result would be a cacophonous mess. Actually, the opposite is true. Just like the direction here, everything about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's sonic situation is perfectly balanced and expertly modulated.
If there is a single unsettling aspect to this otherwise reference quality release, it's the lack of really overwhelming bonus features. True, we have an entire second disc devoted to extras (the better to keep the film's tech specs in check), but what we have is rather disappointing at times. Before highlighting what's here, let's take a moment to mention what's not—that is, a commentary track. Burton has just delivered a swell set of alternate narratives to Warners for the Batman retrospective release, so it seems odd they wouldn't throw him an additional stipend and record a conversation for this film as well. Maybe it's being saved for—dare it be said—a double dip somewhere along the line. As such, the lack of such a discussion is annoying.
Still, there is some enjoyment to be had in the extras offered here. Disc Two begins with a menu that asks you to choose between features and activities. The former takes you to the documentaries and making-ofs, the latter is a series of games that are remote-based and kind of aggravating. The featurettes include a look at how Deep Roy was turned into dozens of nearly identical Oompa-Loompas. One of the most amazing aspects of the effect is that Roy did EACH performance by himself, no CGI work or extensive rotoscoping was involved. If it required 50 extra takes of the same dance step or body motion, he did it. There were some physical effects used, the computer did help keep the continuity in size, but what you see on the screen is almost all Roy. In addition, we learn how tedious and terrifying the life of a squirrel wrangler can be. About 40 of the outdoor varmints made cameos in the film, replacing the geese from Willy Wonka. The acorn lovers were always part of Dahl's vision for the Veruca Salt scene and getting them to complete certain tasks for the camera is considerably hard work.
The final freestanding extra is a BBC-produced profile of Dahl, and it's well worth a look. As his family and associates read excerpts from his books, we get to know the man and the myth, the famously flamboyant personality and the quiet, idiosyncratic individual that ended up becoming the renowned children's author. Though at 17 minutes, it's very brief, there is a lot of information and insight offered.
Finally, there are five different documentaries offered up as part of something called "Making the Mix." They consist of a look at how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came together as a film project ("Chocolate Dreams"—7 minutes), an overview of the casting and the characterizations ("Different Faces, Different Flavors"—11 minutes), an interview with composer Danny Elfman about the music in the movie ("Sweet Sounds"—7 minutes), a discussion of what it takes to make thousands of gallons of fake fudge ("Designer Chocolate"—10 minutes) and some of the secrets behind the effects ("Under the Wrapper"—6 minutes). Together they tell a fascinating, if slightly smarmy, EPK-like tale of how a huge undertaking like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was finally realized. They all play like preludes to something more in depth, though, so don't be surprised if we see various incarnations of this title (a la The Wizard of Oz) somewhere in the near future.
It will take a few years before the insightful predictions offered in this review take hold, but mark this critic's words, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will find its place among the major motion picture accomplishments in the world of kidvid fantasy, and those who scoffed at it originally will wonder why they ever got their derisive dander up in the first place. This is the kind of film that will be studied and savored, obsessed over, and revisited multiple times. In today's quick turnaround world, it takes time out of the spotlight for such special offerings to blossom and grow.
Where once it was easy to indulge in something as gob smacking and grandiose as this movie, our consistent pipeline of product drags away our dwindling attention before we've had a real chance to dig in and enjoy. Thus, DVD will deliver Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, giving cynics pause in their instant dismissals and fans a chance to experience the magic multiple times. These are the events that actually lead up to a declaration of masterpiece. It worked for Edward Scissorhands. It worked for The Nightmare Before Christmas. And if there is any justice, it will work for Burton's bravado turn here. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ageless and eternal. It's not a remake. It's resplendent!
Welcome to the creation of a new family classic. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is found NOT GUILTY and is completely free to go. Warners is also acquitted on all charges for the excellent technical work here, though the Court warns them about presenting a Special Collectors Edition double dip somewhere down the road.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Becoming Oompa-Loompa" Featurette
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