Dahl, But Sweet

Can we talk? Johnny Depp in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'
Warner Bros.

To justify and magnify their remake, director Tim Burton and company have run on a platform of faithfulness to Roald Dahl, author of the hallowed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl reportedly loathed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder--which makes him a typical writer. I can imagine plenty of things that might have bugged Dahl about that 1971 adaptation: the softening of Charlie's poverty (Peter Ostrum looked such a healthy child!), the original songs (but who couldn't love "Oompa Loompa"?), the whole Slugworth subplot in which Charlie proves his moral superiority to the other children. However, I can't see that Dahl would prefer this Chocolate Factory, for Burton and screenwriter John August have taken significant (and just as unnecessary?) liberties of their own. (Ah, well--the dead can't complain.)

The story's setup benefits most from these embellishments. In a town with a magnificent candy factory, a boy (Finding Neverland's Freddie Highmore) lives in poverty with his skinny parents and very frail grandparents. The family's isolated shack is twisted by Burton's usual snow-chased gothic decay--contrasted this time with the modernism of the factory and the industrial-age weight of the rest of the unnamed city. With added humor and backstory, Charlie's home life has an earthy substance. The bed-bound grandparents huddling in their four-poster are distinguished by enthusiasm (David Kelly as Grandpa Joe), affection (Eileen Essell as Grandma Josephine), senility (Liz Smith as Grandma Georgina), and acerbic clarity (painter/lecturer David Morris making a terrific big-screen debut as Grandpa George). Along with Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor as Mom and Dad, they play goofy straight, and the viewer feels the warmth in Charlie's drafty house.

Here Grandpa Joe once worked for Willy Wonka at the candy factory, which makes its mass firings and unknown workings poignant indeed. (Dahl's 1964 fantasy was startlingly prescient about the effect of outsourcing on the working class--not to mention how it nailed the psychopathy of modern children.) This Dahl fan still wishes for a sharper distinction between Charlie's hunger and the abundance represented by Willy Wonka: I miss the part in the book where chilled and starving Charlie finds money, runs to buy a candy bar, and devours it in 30 blissful seconds. ("Oh, the joy of being able to cram large pieces of something sweet and solid into one's mouth!") It seems to me the tale's most salient scene, and one less dangerous than instructive to a protected child's worldview. On the other hand, Highmore appears appropriately peaked given Charlie's strict diet of cabbage soup.

But after little Charlie, along with four infamously monstrous children, wins a ticket to visit the factory, Burton's confection goes rather flat (right at the point where the Wilder version starts to roll--perhaps the two films could be combined). It's not the fault of Johnny Depp, whose wild Wonka amusingly mixes Carol Channing and Brian Jones--with a sprinkle of Joan Rivers. Rather, the problem is a kind of overexposure--or overexplanation. Can candy be too candy-colored? Is watching a multidirectional elevator operate from the outside as delicious as experiencing it from the inside? Will a child laugh in awe as Wonka's tiny foreign-born workers (one small brown man multiplied digitally) perform irony-drenched production numbers to horrid pastiches of '70s pop? (Danny Elfman's musical contributions have never been more egregious.)

Finally, must the audience know the root cause of all Wonka's weird tics, including his proud-papa colonialism? (Burton accuses Daddy, of course: shades of Big Fish and Edward Scissorhands.) The director means to compare Charlie's rich family nurturance with Wonka's empty excess, yet this blandly flashy movie panders to exactly what Dahl's story critiques: an ever-increasing thirst for more!, whether it's food, possessions, success, or (cinematic) sensation. Unlike the Wilder version, this movie will not scare children (okay, maybe the squirrel scene). What thrills is mystery, and there is little left here.

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