July 24th, 2005

Wedding day

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Ellen and I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tonight. Wow. My friends have been spouting reviews from all over the spectrum, but I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I suspect that most of its detractors more or less missed the point. By the way, this is really long, so if you don't want to read it, skip to the last paragraph. Those final two sentences are journalistic friggin' art.

First, let's summarize the film and talk about the cast. The story is a cautionary tale about -- oh, you've seen the Gene Wilder film from 1971? Well, just bear with me for the sake of the uninitiated (read: people who wouldn't be reading my journal anyway). Willy Wonka is a reclusive genius who, for Freudian reasons, has decided to devote his life to making candy. Charlie Bucket is a poor kid with a British accent. Wonka announces a contest involving five golden tickets hidden beneath the wrapping of his chocolate bars. The lucky buyers of these five bars are allowed to spend a day at Wonka's factory, under the supervision of one parent, partly because everybody's still a little wary of that Neverland Ranch thing, but mostly because that's the way it happened in the book. Charlie (predictably ('cuz it's in the title)) finds one of these tickets and goes with four other spoiled brats to tour the factory. Hilarity ensues.

Casting on this one was fantastic. In Roald Dahl's original novel, most of the characters are one-dimensional to a Dickensian degree, and this comes through very well in the film. The four kids who aren't Charlie are all appallingly, well, appalling, as well the should be. Mike Teevee has carried his obsession with the frantic violence of video games into real life. Veruca Salt is rich and snobby. Augustus Gloop is (as suggested by his onomatopoeic name) a glutton. Violet Beauregarde sees competition in everything. All of the children's foibles are the result of bad parenting, from the over-pampering Mr. Salt, to Mr. Teevee's "Better Parenting Through Broadband" philosophy. All are young, so their acting sensibilities may not be fine-tuned yet, but roles like these are not difficult to master. Creating visual persona is most important here, and the kids are all great.

Not as great as Charlie Bucket, however. Charlie (played by Freddie Highmore) is the kind of good kid with a big heart who probably actually eats his broccoli and washes behind his ears. He'd give you the shirt off his back if he thought it would fit. He's such a nice kid that he deserves this paragraph all to himself. Real life sucks people like Charlie dry, but this is a movie and his name is in the friggin' title, so you know he's gonna come out on top.

Charlie lives with his parents and all four grandparents, which I only mention because Noah Taylor (Mr. Bucket) deserves more work. Oh yes, Grandpa Joe (the "parent" Charlie brings to the factory) is well-played by David Kelly, with whom I'm embarrassingly unfamiliar. And since we're talking parents, this is a special, ultra-secret message to Hollywood: Missi Pyle (Mrs. Beauregarde) deserves larger roles. She doesn't need to take her clothes off or be marketed as the romantic interest or anything, I just think she should get more work.

As even those who slept through the 1971 version of the story will recall, Mr. Wonka staffs his factory with Oompa Loompas from the probably-not-real country of Loompaland. All of the Oompa Loompas in this movie are played by Deep Roy. Remember Deep Roy? No? Why am I the only person who ever recognizes and remembers Deep Roy? He was in That Pink Panther Movie, Big Fish, The Neverending Story... Seriously, I know Deep Roy's work, and I kinda like him, if only to make up for the severe underappreciation shown him by the rest of the world. This movie oughta bring him a few converts though, as his work is incredible. He plays all 165 Oompa Loompas, and each scene they're in contains dozens of individual performances, not 165 duplications of the same one. Guy's gotta be my parents' age, and he dances like Freddie Mercury.

Willy Wonka, of course, is played by the bizarrely incomparable Johnny Depp. Depp's Wonka is zany, childlike, and will probably bother anybody looking for Gene Wilder's take on the character. The new one feels closer to the book to me, and he's definitely an effectively weird character, bouncing about with his mind stuck in hyperdrive. It's not a kind of role we've seen Johnny Depp play before, and I think he does a beautiful job capturing the tics and eccentricities built into the character, though I wonder if his performance will age well. I worry that Depp's Willy Wonka, like Gir from Invader Zim, fits the contemporary mold of "wacky and naive." Will we look back on these characters ten years from now with the same nostalgic disdain as we have for Pee-Wee Herman?

New to this version of the story are flashbacks involving Willy's father, Dr. Wilbur Wonka, D.D.S., played by the always frightful Christopher Lee. Since I mentioned Pee-Wee above, I'd just like to add that if Paul Rubens and Tim Burton ever pair up for another Pee-Wee project, Christopher Lee would be wonderful as Pee-Wee's great grandfather, Winchester-Wee Herman III. Condolences to anybody who knows where I lifted that joke from.

Tim Burton's direction is as good as ever. He's been trying new things over the last few years with different levels of success (compare the mediocre Planet of the Apes with the excellent Big Fish). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is more a reworking of his older visual styles, marrying a Technicolor update of his bedraggled, Gothic imagery (Hey Tim, nice to see the return of your spiral motif!) to the spastic playfulness of the Pee-Wee movies. I'm sorry, I just reread that sentence, and I swear I wouldn't be writing like this if it weren't almost 4 AM. Anyway, it's a very stimulating film on a visual level, and his usual inappropriately-skewed sense of humor shines through. Burton's directing blah blah blah competent as usual blah blah blah lighting effects, camera work, etc., etc., nothing you haven't seen from Burton before, but who goes to popcorn movies to see how much the director has grown?

There's a tremendous amount of CGI in this movie, but who cares? The factory, where everything is grandiose (and pointless, according to Mike Teevee) is dreamland². Practical effects can't show us a world like the one inside the factory, even on a $150,000,000 budget (especially in a union shop...). Nobody wants realism in a movie like this, so why not aim high? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does and succeeds without going overboard (Star Wars, Episode I, anybody?). On the topic of CGI, there's an incredibly clever moment featuring some digitally-altered footage from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick fans will figure out the joke before the rest of the audience even recognizes the footage, but it's worth keeping an eye out for.

Danny Elfman's score for the movie is gorgeous, and might be my favorite of his to date. It blends his usual heavy and frantic modes with electronic sounds to conjoure images of industry. One major highlight of the film is the songs sung by the Oompa Loompas. Elfman performs all of the vocals to a variety of musical genres, from disco to hard rock. Unlike the 1971 film, the lyrics here have been lifted directly from the book. The end result -- especially with the visual of Roy's Oompa Loompas -- is probably the closest Danny Elfman will ever get to retreading the performance art days of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.

All in all, though, wordy, 4 AM, movie geek assessment aside, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fun film. It rests on the same level as Disney's better animated features (Aladdin springs to mind), perfectly balanced to reach its entire audience, along with anybody who might accidentally stumble in on the way to Wedding Crashers. There's a simple moral lesson to push the plot along, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not a remedial film. Like candy, it exists purely to be enjoyed.
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