Sunday, December 11, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

"Wasn't that just magnificent? I was worried it was getting a little dodgy in the middle part, but then that!

- Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Since it was published in America in 1964, Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) has become a classic of children's literature.  The book is still assigned reading in many middle school and high school curricula and has spawned two film adaptations, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton's 2005 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become a generational touchstone for kids raised in the 1970s (myself included), the recent Tim Burton adaptation is, surprisingly, far more faithful to the Roald Dahl novel in terms of mood, manner, and visualization.  As is the case in the Dahl book, the 2005 film deftly critiques both capitalist society -- which creates a vast gulf between the economic well-being of Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket -- and the mores of contemporary child-rearing. 

On the second conceptual front, the Tim Burton movie has updated many of Dahl's satirical flourishes for 21st century consumption, turning Mike Teavee into a video game-a-holic and Violet Beauregard into a pre-adolescent over-achiever.  But despite such minor updates, the intent of both works remains to hold up a mirror to society at large and address something seemingly flawed in the prevailing social structure.  Naturally, both book and movie accomplish this task in entertaining fashion, as a seemingly "harmless" fairy tale meant for kids. 

Like Dahl, Burton is an expert in the creation of fantastic and grotesque worlds, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provides him ample opportunity to showcase his stellar, off-beat imagination.  Dahl's slapstick humor, and exaggerated settings -- namely an impossibly bizarre factory interior -- thus find new life in Burton's audacious visualizations, which critic Peter Bradshaw accurately described as conveying  "a retro Day-Glo 1960s" vibe.

Furthermore, Burton's fascinating addition of a Willy Wonka back-story represents the director's stylistic personalization or interpretation of the source material, and functions in some sense, even, as an improvement over the novel's story.  In particular,  Burton gives Willy "father" issues, and this aspect of the movie plays perfectly into the social criticism of modern-day parenting underlining the entire affair.

It's easy to gaze at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and see only a colorful kiddie flick, a silly, inconsequential fantasy, but in this entertaining film, Burton has retained so much of what made Dahl's work unique, and, in fact, added something to the experience.  He's done so by co-opting the literary imagery of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and even the choreographic style of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976).   In toto, the film is another remarkable triumph for the director, and I must admit, I wasn't expecting the film to be so damned good.

As critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Salon: "“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” couldn’t have emerged from anywhere but the dark, chambered nautilus of Burton’s imagination — in its best sections, it’s magically deranged in a way no other filmmaker could even come close to pulling off." 

Magically deranged.  That about says it all.

"You can't run a chocolate factory with a family hanging over you like an old, dead goose."

In Charlie The Chocolate Factory, eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) has distributed five golden tickets to visit his factory in the unusual and delicious Wonka candy bars.   This act sets off a world-wide search for the five elusive tickets.

The first ticket is found by an obese glutton, Augustus Gloop (Philip Weigratz).  The second is "procured" by a millionaire-industrialist for his indulged daughter, Veruca Salt (Julia Winter).  The third ticket is found by a gum-chewing over-achiever, Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb) and the fourth by a smart-aleck video-game aficionado, Mike Teavee (Adam Godley).

Rather unexpectedly, the final ticket falls into the hands of the modest and kind Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore), a boy who lives in poverty in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town with his parents and grandparents.  At first, Charlie decides to sell the ticket to pay for food because his father has recently lost his job, but Charlie's grandpa, Joe (David Kelly) convinces him he should keep it.

Together, Grandpa Joe and Charlie meet Willy Wonka at the factory, and tour the various rooms of his amazing candy factory.  These include The Chocolate Room, the Inventing Room, the Nut Room, and the TV Room. 

In each room, one of the young visitors falls prey to a strange industrial accident. Augustus Gloop is sucked up into a giant chocolate pipe (or straw?).  Violet is turned into a giant blueberry after sampling Wonka's experimental three-course-meal-chewing gum, Veruca is tossed down a garbage chute in the Nut Room, and Mike Teavee is sucked into a television...then shrunken down to size by the experience.  In all instances, Wonka's bizarre workers, the Oompa-Loompas (Deep Roy) sing songs about the fallen children.

In the end, Charlie is the only child to remain standing on the entire tour, and Wonka reveals he would like him to be his heir.  The only catch: Charlie must do it alone; without the family who helped get him here...

"Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy."

Candy doesn't need to have a point, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory certainly makes a few.

In his artistic selections, Burton enhances the novel's social critique of runaway, out-of-control capitalism. 

In particular, Burton opens the film with a truly Dickension flourish by showcasing a wintry, industrial city where a vast gulf exists between the wealthy and the poor.  Charlie lives in little more than a hovel, and watches as his father loses his job in the local toothpaste factory.  The Wonka factory dominates the landscape, both a foreboding and mysterious place.

A proponent of social reform himself, Charles Dickens' satires often showcased the hardships of the working class in London, and pointed out the anti-human and inhumane nature of big industry during his time.  Like Dahl, Dickens is well-known for his black humor and colorfully-named characters, as well. What Burton achieves here so brilliantly is the fanciful merging of the two artists.  He enhances Dahl's words with imagery of poverty, industry and inequality right out of Oliver Twist.  Of course, there's also a modern spin on the idea of runaway industry since automation at the factory is the thing that puts both Mr. Bucket and Grandpa Joe out of work.  This aspect of the film certainly speaks to our national context today, in the era of the one percenters and the 99ers.

Meanwhile, Willy Wonka leads the indulged life of, well, Michael Jackson in Neverland.  The idea that both the late King of Pop and Wonka seem to share in common is that neither one was afforded a happy childhood.  But in adulthood, they possess the will and the wealth to rectify that mistake; to recreate the childhood they wished they had. To indulge themselves, in other words.  Such wealth puts Wonka in a different social class from Charlie, who has no time to focus on his childhood, only the vicissitudes of day-to-day survival: a hole in the roof, and cabbage soup again for dinner.  Wonka is a lonely figure -- a Burton outsider and misfit -- but he is rich enough to build a world around him; one that answers only to his demands and desires.  Charlie can't do that. 

Additionally, Wonka has surrounded himself with the Oompa Loompas, small "men" who all look identical to one another, and toil for cocoa beans, rather than for a living wage.  Wonka brought them back from the "wild," and this facet of the story is certainly an allegory for the First World's colonial exploitation of the Third.  It's also notable that the Oompa Loompas all "look alike" and aren't exactly treated as individual people. 

Significantly, they dance in the geometric, kaleidoscopic, uniform fashion favored by Busby Berkeley in his Depression-Era films, and that's important too.  The Oompa Loompas act (and dance) as "one" and don't concern themselves with personal wealth: they are a collective. 

Again, it's important to recall that Berkeley made his splash in Depression Age films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and that his choreography was said to eschew failed American "individualism" (capitalism?) in favor of the concerns of "the collective."  In other words, the Chorus Girls dancing in a Berkeley musical number were all part of a larger pattern or ideal, unimportant alone but powerful as a network or "whole."  The Oompa Loompas are presented in that very fashion here, and hence as an antidote or remedy to the overt, out-of-control capitalism we see described in the film, embodied by acts of corporate espionage and sabotage. 

If you couple the Dickensian landscapes (incessant snowfall, extreme poverty, smoke-spewing factories) with the Busby Berkeley musical flouishes (championing the collective nature of collaboration in Wonka's factory), with Dahl's tale of a "good" boy who inherits the Factory -- the means of production -- what you start to see emerge on-screen is a tale depicting the failure of capitalism and the importance of "community."  For what does Charlie, in the end bring to Willy Wonka -- the iconoclastic loner -- but an acceptance and understanding of family; the root "community" of human society and civilization?

Even the film's narration describes Charlie in terms which  heighten the social critique against out-of-control capitalism.  The narrator suggests:

"This is a story of an ordinary little boy named Charlie Bucket. He was not faster, or stronger, or more clever than other children. His family was not rich or powerful or well-connected; in fact, they barely had enough to eat." 

What are Charlie's prized characteristics?  Well, he's loyal to his family, he shares with them his resources (his candy bar and his love...), and he believes that when he succeeds, they all succeed.  Given this description, in conjunction with the trenchant visuals, it's not a stretch to view the film as a rebuke of western culture's long-standing ideals and myths surrounding rugged individualism and boot-strap-ism (or "entrepreneurship.")  

Indeed, this boy succeeds not by being the smartest, fastest or strongest, or by being the son of a rich man, but by simply being decent and responsible to those around him; by having a sense of himself in relation to others. 

Powerfully, Burton's film also notes the extreme unfairness of  out-of-control capitalism, namey that it does not reward those who do good, but rather those who already possess resources.  "The kids who are going to find the golden tickets are the ones who can afford to buy candy bars every day," says Grandpa Joe. "Our Charlie gets only one a year. He doesn't have a chance."   That's the problem: the deck is stacked against those without by power by those who already possess it.

Outside the withering critique of capitalism, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a cautionary tale for parents.  Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are negative examples to learn from.  They reveal to audiences what happens when parents fail in their sacred duty to raise decent human beings.  Gloop is a glutton, Salt an indulged brat, Violet an empty-headed "winner" who has to be the best at everything she does, and Teavee an emotionally disconnected know-it-all.   And although the film punishes the children for their offenses, it does not view them as the real bad guys, as the Oompa Loompa song for Veruca clearly points out:

"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."

What we see here is a kind of "sins of the father" dynamic.  The parents are the ones at fault for raising monsters, and yet it is the children who ultimately suffer for actually being monsters.  This is a dynamic that, as the father of an only child, I grapple with just about every day.  How much indulgence is too much indulgence, in terms of child rearing?  Where's the line between a happy child and a spoiled one?  Cross that line, and the child...and the world suffer. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- both the source novel and the film -- deal with the very real idea that parents can all too easily transform their children into brats.  They can do it by obsessing on winning (a variation of competing, which goes back to the capitalism angle); by turning them over to the tender lessons of commercial television, or by indulging their every appetite, no holds barred.   I confess, this is the very reason why the Dahl book has always appealed to me on such a gut level: the idea that kids, if we aren't careful, are little Frankenstein Monsters that we make and then set loose into the world.

The film adaptation by Burton goes the extra and perhaps even genius step, of suggesting that Willy Wonka is one of these Frankenstein Monsters all gorwn up.  His father, a cruel dentist played by Christopher Lee, turned him into what he is: a snide, family-hating Michael Jackson/Howard Hughes-like recluse; someone who can't meaningfully connect to other human beings.  Optimistically, the film's conclusion suggests that Wonka will be "adopted" by (and thus re-parented) by Charlie's humble and nurturing family, and that this particular monster can be un-made.

Some critics have suggested there's something a bit sadistic about both the book and the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I don't disagree, but sometimes a little so-called "sadism" is good for the soul.  It's good to know that the wicked and the corrupt and the gluttonous and the entitled eventually get punished for their misdeeds, and that occasionally -- just occasionally -- someone of stout heart and gentle tendencies can win out over the wealthy, the connected, the loud, and the powerful.

As I wrote above, Burton's 2005 film -- filling in the gap in Wonka's backstory -- actually improves the nature of Dahl's story.  It reveals to us that Wonka is human and flawed, and even a bit monstrous too.  He's not a perfect creature standing in judgment of "bad" children here, but rather an imperfect, flawed being himself.  I like that interpretation, because it suggests that a child wounded will, as an adult, wound others.  And it also suggests that it's never too late to care about someone, and help them be better.    

Wonka doesn't get away with being a monster in this version of the classic Dahl tale, and I like that. It defuses the "sadistic" label the book has acquired over the years.

People who live in glass elevators, after all, shouldn't throw stones...

Next Weekend: Alice in Wonderland (2010)


  1. Another excellent and in-depth review of this Burton work. I don't easily disagree with any of it, John. Although, I wasn't exposed to Roald Dahl's book in school, nor did I see either of these film adaptations first run (in '71 or '05) for some reason, I did find the societal criticism behind story very intriguing. Certainly, the archetypes depicted are readily apparent to both "one percenters and the 99ers", I think. whether either of them could change themselves or their children is another story.

    Still, while it's a spectacular film to watch, and for Burton fans to revel in given the visuals he has going throughout, along with the keen observation of capitalism, it's one I'm less smitten by. I like it, but don't love it like his others. I wanted to, especially after it quoted the "Good mornin' starshine, the earth says hello" line from the 'Hair' musical song early on. I certainly enjoyed Johnny Depp channeling Michael Jackson (more sympathetic now compared to when the film was released) and David Kelly's Joe to a large extent, along with the cast overall. It didn't all jell, however.

    Perhaps, it was the musical element for me. The song sequences, though colorful and somewhat imaginative, didn't resonate because of a lack of a tune that was truly catchy. They're clever, just not memorable or singable like in the '71 adaptation or other films. 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is good, alright... it just wasn't great for me.

    Thanks for this, John.

  2. Hi JKM;

    I had a very different reaction to Charlie, but until reading your review I really didn't have a handle on why. I think what I really disliked about Burton's version (outside of the tuneless songs) was that it changed what the story was "about", as far as I was concerned, anyway. To me, the book and original film have a mystical structure, with the hero undergoing a Heroic journey through a supernatural environment under the capricious guidance of a classic Trickster figure. Essentially, a psychedelic, "trip" movie. But Burton's Wonka is not a Trickster, he's seems more of a Fool, in terms of mystic archetypes. It changes the energy of the story, makes it seem smaller somehow. Depp's Wonka is a Lost Little Child-Man, whereas Wilder's is Mercurial, even a tad Luciferian (in a good way). My two cents.

  3. Excellent comments on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

    Le0pard13: I can totally see where you're coming from in terms of the songs. They are kind of tuneless, as both you and DLR point out. I probably should have mentioned that downside in the review, so I'm glad you brought it up, my friend. I liked this one far more than I expected to, and it is the first PG rated movie I've screened for my son, Joel, who also liked it. I agree with you that it is not in the class of Ed Wood, Big Fish or Edward Scissorhands, perhaps, and may fall into the very good rather than "classic" category, but for me at least, I was pleasantly surprised. I had heard bad films about the film and was pleased to see how faithfully it followed the book.

    DLR: You also raise a good point that I hadn't thought of. I think you're right that the nature of the story is changed (from Willy Wonka in 71 to Charlie). They are very different animals. I like both of them, but I can see how you make your assessment. Before the movie, I was more a fan of the book than the 71 version, so maybe I didn't consider so much what was lost between film translations, and focused instead on how similar to the book the film felt and seemed. You are right about the difference between Wonkas, however.

    Excellent insights!


  4. I too viewed this one somewhat unexpectedly with my kids. I had seen the original a hundred times with them and didn't have a huge interest.

    Gosh, I really thought it was terrific. It was a pleasant surprise.

    Your analysis is wonderful I will have to look at it with new eyes and sit and view it without actually making dinner or something. : )
    Best, sff

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