More noise than signal

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

We all remember the original adaptation of Rohald Dahl’s kiddy pleasing novel, in that case retitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to reflect Gene Wilder’s gurning domination of the film. Or at least, every review I’ve ever read of this film assumes that we do, when in fact it’s been so long since I last watched all I can vaguely remember of it is top hats and primary colours. Similarly it’s been a long time since I was a kid, the usual timeframe one reads kid’s books in, so my memories of the novel are vague generalities. Not, of course, that I’m casting any doubt on the legions of said reviewers who claim that Tim Burton’s latest outing is far closer to the book that its predecessor, just that you shouldn’t trust any comparisons I end up making too much.

The reason I mention this is that it’s very tempting to merely say that everyone knows the story and skip over the potted recap, but on personal experience I suppose that’s a little too presumptuous. The Bucket family are not well off, in fact the cosy little hovel three generations of Buckets live in is a terrible testament to the failing of the British welfare state. Still, young ‘um Charlie (Freddie Highmore) is happy, with everyone he loves under one roof. Aww, kittens. Anyway, despite the poverty he has become accustomed to he can’t help but be caught up in the global hysteria provoked when reclusive confectioner Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) hides five golden tickets granting the holder a chance to see something no one else has since it’s mysterious reopening – the inner workings of the factory.

The other winners being the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), the spoilt little rich kid Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), competitive chewing gum fanatic Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) and prophetically named offspring of the video generation Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). Accompanied each by a largely ignorable parent, this as you may have picked up on are a sorry lot. Good job Charlie fortuitously finds the last ticket in a choccy bar bought with a fortuitously found tenner to bring the respectability quotient up. They tour the factory of wondrous, fantastical, strung-out-on-crack production and research facilities filled like nut sorting trained squirrels, cows being lashed (how else do you get whipped cream?), chocolate rivers and teleportation devices. The strangest thing about all of this is that none of the preceding is the strangest thing in the factory, that honour going to the proprietor of the facility.

Aaah, Johnny Depp. While, due no doubt to my overwhelming, soul destroying cynicism, I hadn’t been too excited by the prospect of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one thing a moment of rational thought would make clear is that it’d be an enjoyable film to watch. The reason, of course, is Depp. The man can drive films along through sheer personality and gumption alone. Secret Window basically sucked, but remained watchable because of Depp’s efforts. Once Upon A Time in Mexico might not have floated everyone’s boat but only a controversial fool would deny Depp’s excellence, and the oft-trumpeted, unexpected channeling of Keith Richard in Pirates of the Caribbean needs little further elaboration. The man’s a revelation, and his talents make this iteration of Wonka is a joy to behold. While he has the trademark bizarre sense of happiness that Wilder hitched his wagon to, Depp’s far more effective at showing something strangely sinister, something frightening behind his eyes. Sometimes it’s so subtle it’s difficult to know precisely how he’s achieving it, and that’s something quite special.

Of course, it’s not Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory this time round, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. much as Depp’s near flawless display captures one’s attention, this film you be nothing without some grounding in reality. Hence Freddie Highmore’s importance as closest thing to normality we have to sympathise with. As the book demands, he’s the clean cut innocent kid with a heart of gold, especially compared to the other brats, but manages not come over all goody-two shoes. This begs the question, “Where in the name of Quetzlcoatl did the phrase ‘Goody Two Shoes’ come from?” The answer, sadly, is a mystery to me, but one thing I do know – Highmore’s charming performance is also a joy to behold, and shows up Dakota Fanning as the horrendous, precocious little runt she is.

More joy beholdance is provided by Burton’s direction and art department – this is a lovely looking film. While it’s all very Burton-ian, it’s also quite evocative of Dahl’s descriptions. So I’m told. It has a sort of primary-colour filled dreamscape tinge to it, almost like an inverse-Beetlejuice. Also deserving of our respect is prolific composer Danny Elfman’s contribution, not just on the orchestrals but on the fantastical songs the Oompa Loompa’s sing after each child’s ironic mishap, the 80’s hair metal themed one a particular highlight. Oh yes, Oompa Loompas. Seem to have neglected to mention Wonka’s factory staff thus far. The wonders of CGI enable all of them to be played by the interestingly named Deep Roy, which makes them as freaky as anything you’ll find in a cinema this year. Despite rarely, perhaps never speaking in his own voice (it’s safe to assume the songs are dubbed), there’s still a goodly amount of character conveyed in his nods and winks.

My problems with Charlie and the Chocolate factory are twofold; Firstly that despite Burton’s insistence I’m not convinced the scenes of Wonka’s backstory are particularly necessary or as good as the rest of the film and secondly that British kids do not, under pain of death, ever, ever say the word “candy”, unless they’re talking about their favourite porn stars. This is why hearing lil’ Freddie say things like “Candy doesn’t have to have a point” at best sounds odd, at worst provokes long winded filibustering about the gradual Americanisation of British heritage and so forth until the nice men come and take me to the comfy, padded room for some ‘reflection time’ and calming pills. The pills always help. That’s what they’re there for.

These are not large problems. In fact, they’re so minor I typically wouldn’t mention them but otherwise I fear all of this unalloyed positivity may become somewhat cloying. Some perspective – I took this flick in a day after the dual horrors of The Island and The Devil’s Rejects. Watching this is rather like walking in from the desert to a air conditioned room and being presented a frosty beverage. Except without all of the sand, and I’m not sure the cinema’s AC was working. And you have to buy your own beverage. In fact, in many ways, ‘not walking in from the desert to a air conditioned room and being presented a frosty beverage’ would be a better simile. Hmm. This isn’t going too well. Instead, let’s just say this is the sort of film capable of wiping the palette clean after a rather rancid starter and main course, like a nice lemon sorbet. Except it’s not really practical to eat a film, and I doubt celluloid tastes very lemony. In fact, in many ways, I shouldn’t be attempting similes as it’s clearly not working.

More simply, this film made me happy. From pretty much the opening credits it made me smile, inducing much the same sort of feeling as those nice calming pills. Much as it is a simple morality tale for the kiddies, it’s also a tremendously enjoyable story for everyone to enjoy. There’s very few chinks in its armor, and given how much pure fun the ride is you aren’t going to be inclined to go looking for them. While it might not have the depth of something like Sideways or the artful sophistry of 2046 one thing is not open to debate round these parts – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is as good a film as you’ll see in a multiplex this year. If you don’t like this film you clearly have no soul.

More Posts