Year of Release: 2005 Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy, and Helena Bonham Carter.
Believe it or not, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ten years old. While the film has received decent reviews from critics (it currently has an 83% at Rotten Tomatoes), audiences have been less kind to Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. When I saw it as a high school student ten years ago, I remember liking it more than most people seemed to, and I may or may not have said to a friend that this film was superior to the original, but that would have been said more in jest than anything else (if it had been said at all).
While Burton and Depp have done brilliant work over the course of their careers, both separately and together, they have also made some bad misfires, again both separately and together. On the other hand, they have made some of my favorite films, so I was curious as to what I would think of this now. However, as I recalled Depp’s goofy hamming it up as Wonka and how he’s lately turned into an obnoxious self parody (Mortdecai), it wasn’t hard to see roots of that here. And after watching some of Burton’s worst films, (Alice in Wonderland) I was resigned to say my high school self was badly wrong.
There’s no use in beating around the bush any longer; I guess I should just come and out and say it. This is a very good movie; it’s better than the 1971 film with Gene Wilder; and I found it to be an even better film than I remembered as a teenager. And no, none of those statements are said in jest.
If you’re still reading and have not deleted this blog from your search history or died of shock, I will emphasize that this film’s strengths lie in the perfectly cast children and Burton’s wildly creative visuals which bring the chocolate factory to life with a reverence for the source material while adhering to his own artistic vision. (I’m still not joking.)
All five of the children were terrifically cast. As Charlie, Freddie Highmore gives a great portrayal of optimism and innocence balanced with an acceptance of reality, always remaining determined and altruistic and never becoming cruel.
The four other child actors are a great contrast to Highmore, and they create delightfully repulsive characters. Philip Wiegratz does not have much to do as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, but his gloating about how much he eats makes the perfect candidate for the first victim of the chocolate factory. AnnaSophia Robb (Violet Beauregarde) delivers her lines with such arrogance and over the top energy that she’s hilarious as the über-competitive girl who detests losers (i.e. everyone else). As the spoiled brat of spoiled brats, Veruca Salt, Julia Winter alternates between pouting and grinning with such ease that it makes her being attacked by squirrels all the more rewarding, and that sequence is easily superior to the geese in the older film. Finally, Jordan Fry gives a great one note performance as the rude and sulking video game-obsessed Mike Teavee.
Burton’s set design and art direction are some of his finest, and the chocolate factory he created has a sense of beauty and danger. The opening shot — a fittingly austere worm’s eye view of the factory’s tower shrouded in fog — captures the greatness of the factory and gives it a feeling being unsafe. When we finally see inside the factory, the vibrant array of colors is genuine Burton art direction. The colorful factory starkly contrasts the drab grays and browns which permeate the London streets, with hints of those colors on display in candy stores. Naturally, the dull colors of London make the golden tickets stand out all the brighter.
I think the above points are all undisputedly fantastic —so much that I don’t really understand how someone could dislike those aspects of the movie. I do understand how someone might not care for Depp’s off-the-wall interpretation of Wonka as a reclusive weirdo scarred by a traumatic childhood. However, if one leaves preconceptions behind and gives the unorthodox performance a chance, he might be surprised to find the performance better than remembered. While Depp’s performance here clearly contains the seeds of him turning into the self parody that he has become recently, I think what he is doing actually works for Burton’s version of the story, even if it is a little overdone.
Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is essentially a horror film for children. After all, the idea of bratty children going off to a strange and mysterious factory where they fall victim to their temptations is not far removed from misbehaving teenagers going off to an abandon area and meeting gruesome ends due to their mistakes. Interestingly, the swirling melted chocolate which flows through the opening credits looks very similar to the gushing blood which flowed through the opening credits of Burton’s next film, the horror musical Sweeney Todd.
The horror in this film stems from the breakdown of families as a result of parental failure. Our hero Charlie is noticeably the only character to come from a happy intact family. As the Oompa Loompas sing: “Who went and spoiled her? Who indeed? / Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones – now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad.” Depp’s Wonka suffers from the same horror that affects the other children, and the film cannot be resolved until that relationship is mended. If one views Depp’s Wonka as the equivalent of the creepy guy who knows the horrors awaiting badly behaved teenagers, his character works.
I guess I should add that I am partial to Burton’s visual aesthetic, and his weakness as a storyteller often does not bother me. (Alice in Wonderland and his Planet of the Apes are both pretty terrible, but Beetlejuice is one of the greatest films ever, and I like it better than every Tarkovsky film I’ve seen. Not. Joking.) Although he slightly failed to rein Depp in, Burton created some fantastic sets, and he preserved the essence of Dahl’s story while retelling it with a slightly darker edge that makes Charlie and The Chocolate Factory a thoroughly enjoyable children’s horror film.
Content Advisory: Comic peril of bratty kids with possibly upsetting imagery. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: B+