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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Directors: Tim Burton
Screenplay: John August (based on the book by Roald Dahl)
Stars: Johnny Depp (Willy Wonka), Freddie Highmore (Charlie Bucket), David Kelly (Grandpa Joe), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Bucket), Noah Taylor (Mr. Bucket), Missi Pyle (Mrs. Beauregarde), James Fox (Mr. Salt), Deep Roy (Oompa Loompa), Christopher Lee (Dr. Wonka), Adam Godley (Mr. Teavee), Franziska Troegner (Mrs. Gloop), Annasophia Robb (Violet Beauregarde), Julia Winter (Veruca Salt), Jordan Fry (Mike Teavee), Philip Wiegratz (Augustus Gloop), Blair Dunlop (Little Willy Wonka)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2005
Country: U.S.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Like a good piece of candy, Tim Burton's fantastical big-screen version of Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is sweet with just the right touch of sour. It's a flight of fancy that takes off from the very first image, but never loses its loftiness or bizarre charm. Like all of Dahl's work, it takes a child's eye view of the world, which necessarily calls for exaggeration and grotesquerie, which are Burton's cinematic specialties. Despite being a mega-budget studio production, this is one of Burton's best films in years. For once, you can't sense him pushing against the boundaries of studio-mandated mainstream "entertainment"; it makes good on the promise suggested by Big Fish (2003) that Burton's unique voice won't be quashed again like it was in his forgettable 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes.

For the fourth time, Burton teams with actor Johnny Depp, and it's no small surprise that Burton's best work occurs when Depp is in the lead (see also 1990's Edward Scissorhands and 1994's Ed Wood). Burton and Depp are kindred spirits -- they're charming weirdos in a realm of increasing homogenization, and the spark they ignite together is the hope that there will always be a space carved out in Hollywood for the quirky and unique.

Depp's enormous success two years ago with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has ensured that he can work his way without too much studio interference, which is the only explanation for how he got away with his portrayal of elusive confectioner Willy Wonka, a character associated in the pop culture mindset with Gene Wilder's campy, mischievous performance from the 1971 musical version. While that film has its good points, the affection many feel for it is borne largely out of fond memories and nostalgia, not cinematic quality.

Burton's version is far and beyond the superior film, and Depp's portrayal of Wonka as an eccentric, slightly androgynous, and utterly misanthropic closet case is much closer to Dahl's heart than Wilder's. With an ashen, almost waxy face, ruby lips, and Prince Valiant bob poking out from beneath an enormous top hat, Depp's physical appearance takes some getting used to, but within the context of the story, it's a perfect fit. He's a man-child who's been shut away for too long, and part of the story's charm is how he is brought out of his shell and learns to appreciate family, the one thing he has despised all his life because he was denied it as a child himself (the only major addition to the film supplied by John August's screenplay is Wonka's backstory).

As most already know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tells the story of how the reclusive Wonka allows five children to tour his enormous, mysterious chocolate factory, the first time anyone has set foot inside the place in 15 years. Hidden inside five Wonka chocolate bars are five golden tickets, and the first five kids who find them get to go. Charlie of the title is Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, Depp's immensely talented costar from Finding Neverland), a young boy who lives in a literally slanted house with his parents (Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter) and both sets of grandparents. They are so poor that cabbage soup is the only thing they can afford to eat, and Charlie's chances of finding a golden ticket are severely limited by the fact that he only gets once chocolate bar a year on his birthday.

But, Charlie does end up finding one, along with four other children, each of which in his or her own, nasty ways, represents the worst of childhood. There's Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), an overweight German boy whose constantly chocolate-smeared face is the very essence of gluttony (he looks not unlike the silly version of Hansel in the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Bewitched Bunny"). Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is the very definition of spoiled brattiness, constantly berating her wealthy father to buy her anything and everything she wants (when she gets impatient, she implores to him without a hint of sarcasm, "Daddy, make time go faster!"). The other girl in the group is Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), whose ultra-competitive nature makes her almost as insufferable as Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), a video-game obsessed kid whose has confused his advanced scientific knowledge with the belief that he already knows everything. Each of these kids is the product of a lousy parent, whether it be Augustus's mother, who not only lets him eat anything he wants, but is actually proud of it, or Violet's spineless father who caves to her every whim, or Veruca's power-Mom who has instilled in her daughter the drive to succeed without any sense of nobility.

The factory itself is an elaborate wonder. Its production was spearheaded by Alex McDowell, whose credits range from the grungy head-trip Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) to the cartoonish exaggeration of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (2003). The factory is everything you would imagine it to be, melding nature and technology into a bizarre wonderworld run by three-foot-high Oompa Loompas (all of whom are played by the four-foot-four-inch actor Deep Roy, who was digitally multiplied up to 165 times for some scenes). Burton's love of the fantastic and weird infuses the factory scenes with a lush sense of excitement, which is tinged by Depp's childlike sense of excitement.

Despite all the wonder, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is really little more than an elaborate story spun around the admittedly cathartic ideal of doling out the perfect punishments for nasty human behavior. Once the tour gets started, each of the vile kids (and, not incidentally, his or her accompanying parent) is somehow punished and left behind. The punishment is always of their own device, usually because they refuse to listen to Wonka's warnings about various dangers. Augustus's gluttony leads him to fall into a river of chocolate, Veruca's competitiveness drives her to chew a piece of gum that turns her into a giant blueberry, Violet's need to have exactly what she wants when she wants it gets her into a bad situation with a hoard of nut-shelling squirrels, and Mike's insistence that he knows more than anyone in the room gets him shrunken to a third his size by a teleportation device. It's like an episode of Survivor in which the kids don't even realize they're bumbling into traps because they're so obsessed with their own desires (whether Wonka devised these traps ahead of time is left just slightly vague).

The last kid standing is, of course, Charlie, who remains simply because he's decent and nice. Some have pointed out that Charlie is the least interesting character in the film because he's the only one who is not an exaggeration of something. Rather, he's just a good boy who is trying to do the right thing. In a sense, this is an unfair criticism; in fact, Charlie is unique and interesting precisely because he's so different from everyone else; he's steadfast and sure of himself, but not in a way that detracts from others. His decision near the end of the film to refuse an offer made by Wonka because it would entail leaving his family is a moment of bravery of which none of the other characters are capable. Because Wonka is really just a child himself, he has much to learn from Charlie, and the warm heart at the center of this candy shell of a movie is Charlie's love of his family over all else.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright ©2005 Warner Bros.

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