More Dahl, Less Depp

Roald Dahl and Tim Burton are a match made in some twisted kid heaven where anyone over four feet high is in principle not to be trusted, and wondrously inventive contraptions save the day on behalf of grievously mistreated children. But a match made in heaven doesn't always translate into paradise on Earth. The first half of CharlieandtheChocolateFactory, a delirious fantasy of abandonment and super-abundant candy adapted from Dahl's most popular novel by John August (who also wrote Burton's moribund BigFish), is a brilliant blend of the best of Burton and Dahl, with some unexpected input from Charles Dickens. In the second half, the contraptions take over, drowning whatever story remains. Add to that a strangely uncommitted performance by Johnny Depp, and the movie subsides, as so many Burton movies have, into a mere triumph of production design. That's not nothing—visually this Charlieis still five times the picture that Mel Stuart's pallid 1971 WillieWonka&theChocolateFactorywas. But it falls frustratingly short of the masterpiece it might have been.

Burton is not entirely to blame. To my mind, Dahl's CharlieandtheChocolateFactoryis a compromised yarn that doesn't compare to, say, his Matildaor JamesandtheGiantPeach, both of which gave shape and context to children's experience of malevolent adult authority, and both of which were made into terrific movies, the latter produced by Burton. And though I've come to regard JamesandtheGiantPeach's Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker as two of kiddie lit's most misogynistic creations, there's no denying that this robust anti-Semite's bleak, even cruel vision of the damage adults can do to children was the source of his most powerful work. (His direct descendant, Lemony Snicket, is every bit as bracing, but far less sadistic.)

CharlieandtheChocolateFactory, which was written in 1964 just before Dahl's wife, actress Patricia Neal, suffered a severe stroke, takes an uncharacteristically benign view of family—and an unusually savage view of children as spoiled brats. Except of course for the novel's hero, Charlie Bucket, who's played in the movie by Freddie Highmore, the pinched lad who ran away with the otherwise wimpy FindingNeverland. Charlie lives in requisite dire poverty with his devoted parents (Helena Bonham Carter—that's Mrs. Tim Burton to you—and Noah Taylor) and four bed-bound, kindly grandparents, one of whom is played with hilarious malapropism by the incomparably hatchet-faced British actress Liz Smith. The early scenes, which set up Charlie's saintly character against those of the four rich and undeserving little monsters who find the golden tickets that will gain them access to Willie Wonka's mysteriously closed chocolate factory, are irresistible. Fat, insatiable Augustus Gloop, pasty Veruca Salt, hypercompetitive Violet Beauregarde (with her glassy-eyed Stepford Wife of a mother) and empty-headed Mike Teavee are all played by actors who look borderline claymated. Burton remains a master of bizarre housing, from Charlie's crazily careening cottage, to the assembly-line factory where his dad puts the tops on tubes of toothpaste, to the gleaming factory floor where Veruca's indulgent father has his entire staff frantically opening candy wrappers to find the golden ticket, to a melting chocolate palace in India, and finally to Wonka's enterprise—from the outside a gloomy industrial edifice straight out of Fritz Lang, while inside it's a fantasyland as menacing as it is enticing.

Burton and his production designer, Alex McDowell, take scrumptious advantage of Dahl's ecstatically vivid descriptions of candy—the reason, I suspect, why kids love this book so much—and there's enormous fun to be had watching the greedy kids wander through an endlessly edible terrain of giant sweets as they get knocked off, one by one. (The blueberrification of Violet is particularly inspired, and Veruca's comeuppance at the hands of a mob of squirrels breaks new ground in kiddie horror.) But while Charlie got his impeccable moral sense and lack of acquisitiveness from his incorruptible relatives, Dahl provideds only the weakest motivation for Willie Wonka—and it doesn't help that Depp's Wonka is as weak and vaporous as his J.M. Barrie was in FindingNeverland.) Try as Burton and August might to compensate with a desperate lunge into cut-rate psychoanalysis—furnishing the unloved entrepreneur with a dentally impaired childhood, achieved in flashbacks that end up flattening the movie—Gene Wilder's wistful menace in the earlier version was far more effective. I spent much of the time when Depp was onscreen longing for more of Burton's divinely nutty Bollywood musical numbers, in which mini-actor Deep Roy is multiply deployed in various shades of vinyl as the Oompa-Loompas, As many have already pointed out, the androgynous Depp is eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson, but as a lesson in the price of gluttony (like many good children's writers, Dahl was an ardent moralist), both he and the movie come of pretty wispy.

Certainly the lesson seems lost on Warner Bros. After the screening, we were showered with vast quantities of Wonka candy. “Take the whole box,” one studio representative urged my daughter. “I thought this movie was about not being greedy,” I murmured. He beamed. “Be greedy.”


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