Most thirtysomethings grew up watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) starring Gene Wilder every year on TV. Yes, that was back when there were no DVD players and no VCR's. We actually had to plan our lives around the TV shows we wanted to watch. But, I digress.
Of course, the Willy Wonka movie was based upon a book by Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, written in 1964. The book has turned out to be a classic, beloved by children (and adults) everywhere. The Gene Wilder movie took a great deal of liberty with the book, however.
I suppose, with the plethora of remakes of shows from the 60's and 70's, it was inevitable that someone would decide to try his hand at reworking the Willy Wonka story. Tim Burton was an obvious choice, with his love for the slightly (ok, MORE than slightly) unconventional storyline. Burton has a coterie of actors that he seems to rely on, and many of these show up in Charlie. You'd have to live under a rock not to realize that Johnny Depp has taken on the difficult role of Willy Wonka himself. Depp is up to the challenge, giving Wonka an offbeat, slightly troubled, self-deprecating air.
Burton's Charlie is much closer to the book, with the exception of an unnecessary subplot involving Wonka's father. The movie would have been better without this rabbit trail, although it is a treat to see Christopher Lee in the role. Drifting away to this storyline repeatedly throughout the film, however, mars Dahl's tightly woven narrative.
That said, it is a treat to see so many scenes and lines directly taken from the book. Having just finished reading it to my children, I was very familiar with the text, and I enjoyed noticing the similarities. One scene taken right from the book was Veruca Salt's demise involving squirrels, much preferable to the "bad egg" scene in the 1971 film.
Freddie Highmore is just delightful as the sweet poverty-stricken Charlie Bucket. He hits just the right attitude, somewhere between melancholy and angelic. Johnny Depp had worked with Highmore in Finding Neverland and was impressed enough to recommend him for the role of Charlie. The actors playing the other children all do a remarkable job as well, especially considering that their roles are essentially one-dimensional. I especially like one scene in which Veruca and Violet Beauregarde declare themselves best friends and then glare maliciously at each other.
The sets are, of course, beautifully done and amazingly detailed. The bleak streets of the city are set in contrast to the candy-colored world inside the factory. The cleverly executed great glass elevator is most impressive, especially the bit of slapstick Depp performs with it.
How can I not say something about the Oompa-Loompas? They are an integral part of the book, performing their moral judgments of each child in song. However, the orange-faced characters of the older film with their memorable chorus could certainly not be repeated, nor were they as Dahl had written them. Burton went a different route (big surprise there, eh?) by casting just one actor, Deep Roy, to play ALL the Oompa-Loompas by the magic of computers. Roy does an astonishing job which required him to don many different outfits and learn a lot of dialogue. I remember thinking that he probably has as much screen time as any of the other actors, including Depp and Highmore.
Much more could be said about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, I will leave you with these final thoughts. In reflection, I like the film even more now than than I did when I left the theatre Friday night. However, I had feared that I would not like this film. How could it compare to the movie with Gene Wilder? What I had seen of Depp's portrayal of Wonka in previews and clips actually made me nervous about the movie instead of enthusiastic. Would Burton update the film to make it unrecognizable from its literary origins?
However, as soon as I saw the beginning credits, my doubts fell away. I was charmed from the moment I saw Wonka's hand placing the Golden Tickets on the bars of chocolate. And, may I just say that, surprisingly, there ARE people in the world who don't know the story. For, as Charlie finally unwrapped that Golden Ticket, there was at least one audible gasp of awe. And that feeling of awe was contagious and it remained with me throughout the remainder of the film.