Sunday, July 24, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Charlie And The Chocolate Factory

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Intense Thematic Material (i.e. kids getting all sorts of yucky come-uppances)

Preconceived Notions: Looks trippier than the Gene Wilder original -- and with Tim Burton to boot.
The Bottom Line: A sweet(er) treat.

Note from your blogmaster: The originial review published here accidentally got blown away. I couldn't recover it so I'm going to try to recreate it. Another reminder to me to watch the use of the "post" button!

Roald Dahl hated the original 1971 version of his classic children's novel -- mainly because Warner Bros. ripped up his screenplay and substituted a version by David Seltzer, who later went on to write The Omen and the TV series Revelations. I have also read he wasn't pleased about the choice of Gene Wilder for Willy Wonka. It's sad he's not around to see this version.

Tim Burton's remake is closer to Dahl's vision of a darkly comic parable about kids in the world's most incredible candy factory. It also has something to say about parenting, although not as forcefully as the Wilder version. And, most enjoyably, many of the musical numbers are gone, racheting up the pace of the film into more of a bedtime story than a children's novel.

Depp plays Wonka as an overgrown kid. He denies he's channeling Michael Jackson, but you do have to wonder with the light complexion, the long hair, the high voice, and the goofy suits. And his chocolate factory is Neverland, with all sorts of strange rooms designed with the playful air of a juvenile mind. If we think something's slightly sicko about him, it's only because of the comparisons to Jackson. The film offers a look into Wonka's depressing childhood, denied candy and forced to wear gargantuan headgear by an overzealous dentist dad.

The story, for those who don't know: Wonka's factory has been running in secrecy for years, although nobody has been seen coming or going. The old workers were let go years earlier, when Wonka shuttered the factory due to employees spreading his chocolate secrets to the competition. But then, it started up mysteriously again -- and nobody knows why, until Wonka offers the chance of a lifetime. Five golden tickets are hidden in Wonka chocolate bars around the world. The five children who find them get to tour the factory, accompanied by a parent, and one of them will win a prize beyond their wildest imagination.

As the title implies, Charlie Bucket (Highmore), is one of the winners. He is also the most unlikely person to win anything, it seems, as his family could easily earn the title of poorest in England. He and his parents live with four bedridden relatives in a house that gives new meaning to the word ramshackle -- with boards leaning every which way and a hole in the roof. His father toils for little money in a toothpaste factory. Grampa Joe was once an employee of Wonka's, and he relates to Charlie the mysteries and magic of what used to go on behind the closed gates.

The other four winners: Agustus Gluck, an obese German eating machine; Veruca Salt, an unabridged spoiled brat; Violet Beauregarde, a compulsive overachiever with a Barbie-doll mom; and Mike Teavee, a video game addict. Those who know the story know these rotten kids get dispatched in various ways while touring the factory.

That's when we hear a song by the Oompa Loompas -- the mysterious factory workers -- all of them played by diminuative actor Deep Roy through the wizardry of CGI which is so seemless I had to keep reminding myself all those little people came from just one man. They act as sort of a tripped-out Greek chorus pointing out each child's tragic flaws. But instead of that repetitive "Ooompa, Loompa, doopity-doo" diddy, composer Danny Elfman whips up tunes evoking hip-hop, glam metal, 60's flower power, and MTV. Unfortunately, I had a hard time hearing the lyrics in the theater -- possibly because of a bad sound mix.

The new Willy Wonka movie is the latest in a string of Hollywood do-overs. We've already seen Batman Begins. The Bad News Bears is coming, and King Kong is on the trailer reel. Many of these films didn't need to be remade, but as long as they are, I'm all for getting them right. Roald Dahl would be too, I imagine. He wrote a sequel to Charlie, but banned Warner Bros. from filming it. Maybe now his estate will reconsider.

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