The Spiral Notebook

writer and editor Lacy Boggs

Film Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)


Ah, nostalgia. That strange malfunction of hindsight that causes us to look back and think how much better things were before.

But there is no place for nostalgia in the land of film remakes. Remakes, you see, are the new vogue; you cannot help but notice it just looking at the summer movie lineup. Hungry film producers are eager to sanction a remake because they build on an already existing market. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a double whammy because it has two already established markets: fans of the book and fans of the first movie.

However, only one of those demographics is going to come away from this film pleased, I think.

In my own personal opinion, pairing Tim Burton and Roald Dahl was a stroke of pure, unadulterated genius. Both are edgy, sometimes dark, criminally funny, and distinctly… well, weird. Burton’s personal style simply oozes out of this film in all its lush spindly, spiny, colorful glory, and is an excellent match for those strange stick figure drawings from Dahl’s own books. Some of the trees in the chocolate room in particular called to mind Dahl’s illustrations for me, as did some of the controls the Oompa Loompas were manipulating and some of the inventions in the inventing room. Burton’s fondness for angular faces and deep shadow was also an excellent fit with the characters in my mind’s eye from Dahl’s novels.

But then, I fall into the first of the two established fan bases I mentioned: I am a fan of the book first and foremost.

Fans of the first film will quickly realize: this isn’t Gene Wilder’s chocolate factory. Johnny Depp is immediately off-putting as Willy Wonka, and deliberately so. Rather than the wide-eyed innocent lunacy of his predecessor, Depp hints at much darker neuroses and psychoses behind the quips and quirks of the chocolatier.

Depp’s character, while fascinating in the same sort of way that a massive accident on the freeway is fascinating, is not loveable, nor endearing, nor, in fact, very believable. Depp’s great genius as an actor comes from his ability to create entirely whole, unique, and realistic characters — no matter how much of a hyperbole they might be, but the over-the-top characterization that worked so well for Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean somehow falls short for Willy Wonka. Where it was delightful to watch a swishy swashbuckler, it is unnerving and even at times uncomfortable to watch the creepy chocolatier.

Yet while the visuals are stunning and the weird-factor strangely captivating, the dark side of the movie feels disjointed with the morals the film tries to teach, and the message becomes trite, over played, and entirely un-subtle rather than blending with the other elements of the film as smoothly as the river of chocolate. The Gene Wilder version of the film worked with the syrupy sweet morals about good children and bad children in part because it had taken off the edge and given Charlie a clear cut reason for winning Wonka’s ultimate prize. Burton’s version tries to stay closer to the morals of the book — Charlie wins Wonka’s prize not because he is better than the other children, but simply because he is less bad — but the final product falls short of the delicate balance of bitter and sweet that Dahl achieved so perfectly in the book.

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