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May 13, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 13, 2006 |

It seemed like a match made in heaven: Roald Dahl’s magnum opus of children’s confectionary fantasy and Tim Burton’s gothic Grand Guignol. It’s true that both writer and director tend to veer towards different emphases in their dark fantasies (satire and romanticism, respectively), but both embrace a quirky, somewhat deranged humor in order to get there. Coupled with Burton’s requisite leading man, there was little to suggest that this film would anything less than one of this summer’s precious few delights.

For the most part, it was! Huzzah!

Let’s get this out of the way early: Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not a remake. It was inevitable, though forever unfortunate, that this rendition would suffer comparisons to the 1971 Gene Wilder film. Director Mel Stuart’s vision, while charming in its own right, was a much less faithful rendering of the original novel that tended to bury Dahl’s rather nasty misanthropy behind Wilder’s charisma and some catchy songs. Burton lifts his material from the source.

Burton’s Charlie is a visual smorgasbord, an almost hallucinatory ride through an imaginative wonderland with comedic flourishes. But where the film succeeds the most is in its dramatic elements. The preliminary half of the film, in which we are introduced to the winsome Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), an earnest and impoverished young boy who lives in a dilapidated shanty with his parents and four bedridden grandparents, is easily the best in the picture. Apparently Johnny Depp was so impressed with Highmore in Finding Neverland that he entreated Burton into give him the role. Here Highmore proves himself a young actor we should watch, for he delivers a performance of stately solemnity uncanny for his age. The rest of the Buckets are also cast to spot-on perfection, particularly David Kelly, who plays Charlie’s lively Grandpa Joe.

Depp’s Willy Wonka is another story. There’s a reason that both seasoned critics and casual filmgoers have all become enamored of him in recent years: He channels his characters with such unflagging eccentric fervor without resorting to the bombast or audience-winking of so many other leading men. His deliveries always feel honest, as if he gives into them without thinking of how delightfully ridiculous he must seem. Here he does something I never would have assumed him capable of — he’s too restrained. Depp’s version of Wonka appears to be a cross between a somewhat-sane Michael Jackson and Pee Wee Herman; funny enough, but too pruned to be the affable madman of legend.

In the darker accompaniments of Dahl’s story, however, both Depp and Burton rise predictably to the occasion. Dahl’s writing has a uniformly sadistic sense of comeuppance throughout; something the 1971 film either ignored or sugar-coated (for lack of a better pun). Burton doesn’t shy away: The four horrid children and their parents — who accompany Charlie on his journey through the factory — receive their just desserts (again, sorry) with all the macabre aplomb that both Dahl and Burton are famous for, and all the while Depp’s Wonka flashes his teeth in thinly veiled satisfaction upon seeing their misery.

It’s too bad that Burton didn’t tie Dahl’s moralizing in better with the story. The fates of the greedy and spoiled kids that made this tale infamous are treated as little more than an afterthought here; ditched in favor of giving Wonka more of a back story explaining how and why he came to love candy, but at the expense of sociability. It’s a bit tacked-on, but it does create a fine metaphor for children’s relationship with candy: both indulgence and denial have their consequences.

Burton’s journey through the factory is an indelible one, peppered with imagery both fantastical and hilarious, and anchored by a strong, if not always consistent, emotional center. But for a few key flaws it could have been a masterpiece; for now, we’ll happily settle for a marvel.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / Phillip Stephens

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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