Janet (j4) wrote,
Janet
j4

Oompa Radar (Part I)

Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Last Wednesday addedentry and I decided to take advantage of Orange Wednesdays to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In preparation for this we'd watched Mel Stuart's original film version (O for the first time, I for the umpteenth).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was ... interesting. It was also quite an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours, but that's not going to stop me dissecting it a bit more. If you just want an executive summary, though, I'd say: if you like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, then there's plenty here for you. If you like Roald Dahl's book, then there's probably just about enough here for you, though you may be frustrated by some changes. If you like Oompa Loompas, you'll be in seventh heaven, because there's hundreds of the freaky little beggars, though of course they're all the same person really. (If you like Oompa-Loompa-music, you probably need help.)

Burton's film is as much a product of the early 21st century as Stuart's was a product of the 1970s: artless stage-musical-style songs are out, peculiar pop pastiche horrors are in; psychedelia is out, hyperreality is in. The four unbearable children who are systematically eliminated to allow Charlie to win his chocolatey prize have had their stereotypes interestingly updated, with Mike Teevee standing out as a particularly convincing disaffected videogame junkie. The film is relentlessly intertextual, too (this seems to be compulsory for modern children's films, perhaps in a bid to make them bearable for jaded adults): from the Edward Scissorhands moment when Wonka opens the factory, to the nods to The Matrix (or is that just me?) in the portrayal of the factory's innards and in the way the elevator takes off from the street corner, to (my favourite) the glimpse of young Wonka writing reviews of the chocolates he tastes (as Roald Dahl recalls doing in the first part of his autobiography, Boy). There's more allusion to current affairs, too, which juggzy deals with in more detail so I don't have to.

The main difference, however, is in the character of Willy Wonka; in the replacement of Gene Wilder's laid-back and largely arbitrary lunacy (mostly benign, but with dark undertones) with Johnny Depp's peculiarly irritating combination of giggling idiocy and heavy-handed psychodrama. Even leaving out my personal dislike of Depp, it's not just the actors, but the character. In the earlier film, Wonka's character has precious little past and no future; all we know about him is that he mysteriously closed the factory, and then one day it began working by magic, and then (the "and then" of dream logic) he decided to give away the five golden tickets, and that's where we come in. When he gives away the Chocolate Factory, his part is played out; his role passes to Charlie. In Burton's film, however, Wonka is given a past which hangs like a chocolate albatross around his neck, and his gift to Charlie comes with conditions that Charlie refuses to meet; and even when these conditions are revoked, Wonka can't let go of his part, and instead hangs around in some kind of poorly-defined managerial role. Yes, the construction of Wonka's past provides a glorious part for Christopher Lee as the fearsome father-figure and deadly dentist; but with that exception, it feels like a filling as unnecessary as the outlandish orthodontic work that Wonka Senior imposes on Wonka Junior.

The crux of my objection, I think, is this: This is not how fairytales are supposed to work. If you're a poor urchin who gets given a gift of a magical Chocolate Factory, your parents are not supposed to cling to you (nor you to them, touching though Charlie's devotion is), and once you've proved your noble motives and purity of heart, the gift is supposed to come free. You're not supposed to have to find an honorary position on the board for the old king or the dying god; you're supposed to be able to burst through the glass ceiling, and you're not supposed to be able to see the strings attached to the glass elevator. Dahl's book, for all its peculiarities and its exuberant nonsense, is a fairytale at heart; Tim Burton's film, for all its Grimm beauty, is not. This certainly doesn't make it a bad film; but for me it makes it an unsatisfying translation of the book.
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