Step Right Up!
By Nick Pinkerton
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Dir. Tim Burton, U.S., Warner Bros.
Tim Burton is one of the better pop-circus ringleaders and more unremarkable artists that American movies have to offer; evidence of both tendencies is much available in his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Talking about it, one runs smack into the director, he’s the superstar name, a blockbuster auteur with such a recognizable, almost trademark visual style that he could get away with prefixing his name to his film’s titles—as on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he produced—just as Fellini did at the height of his reputation. And in the Fellini of, say, Juliet of the Spirits, we have a good frame of reference for Burton today; there’s the same caricaturist’s sense of grotesquerie; the same Macy’s parade appetite for sound stage set-designed massiveness along with sized-to-scale egotism and artistic self-regard. People you’d never suspect to care much about who directed what will talk about "the new Tim Burton”: his canon is much loved by an audience that doesn’t necessarily care about the movies, an army of semi-alienated teenaged girls who list his collection of cuddly-morbid poems and gothy, Edward Gorey-ish drawings, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, as their favorite book; ponce French college kids who sneer at big American movies “mais les films du Burton sont hyper-cool!” etc. If it’s not already in common use, the term Burton-esque will pop up increasingly in film chat, the recent Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events springs to mind, channeling as it did the director’s penchant for unapologetically anachronistic backdrops and his olde curio shop aesthetic.
Charlie adapts Roald Dahl’s fable-lecture of cautionary morality, already filmed in 1971 as the mostly dreary Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Burton’s movie avoids the flavorless set-up scenes of Mel Stuart’s film (and, thank God, the song "Cheer Up, Charlie”), the world of this Chocolate Factory is crazy-extravagant both inside Wonka’s property and out. The factory itself is imagined here, in full Burton-esque style, as a deco fortress with a heavenward-spiraling Chimney of Babel, a monolith that lords, distant and imposing like something from a kid’s pop-up book of Kafka’s The Castle, over sordid, sooty brick row houses in an unnamed English city. Recluse confectioner Willy Wonka is the sweet mill’s lone tenant, having fired all of his employees to foil the espionage of competitors, though his production continues unchecked. The candyman’s long silence breaks with an announcement that five lucky children who find golden tickets with their candy will receive a personal tour of his facilities. The first four winners are each doggerel sketches of vice, including sausage-plumped, piggish Grosz-out German Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), whose bonbon cheeks look like they’ve been dusted with powdered sugar; and locked-to-the-tube Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). The last ticket goes to ever-faithful Wonka fanboy Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), who lives in a half blown-over shack in a lot at the foot of the factory with his picturesquely poor-but-terribly-loving family. The scarcity of sweets—he only gets one chocolate bar a year, on his birthday—only sharpens Charlie’s obsession with all things Wonka: he’s built a scale model of the factory from defective toothpaste caps brought home from his dad’s assembly-line job, and attaches coveted candy wrappers to his walls like other kids might pin up posters of idolized rockers.
Burton’s film opens on a note of Rube Goldberg bravura: this clutter-obsessed director has a knack with insane, tangled machinery, and this time he follows the production of Wonka chocolate by a line of dexterous gadgets in a sequence that should be soundtracked by Raymond Scott’s swinging “Powerhouse,” familiar from so many Merrie Melodies ‘toons. It’s an introduction that recalls the gingerbread cookie assembly line in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, and I imagine that, if he could’ve filmed Dahl’s book 25 years earlier, Burton would’ve liked nothing better than to have Scissorhands‘ sweet-toothed inventor Vincent Price for a Wonka.
Instead, the Wizard of Oz-ish red curtain at the factory rolls back on a socially maladroit Johnny Depp characterization, clenched in the velvet coat of an Edwardian dandy. With his seasick-pale, froggy face frowning sourly under pageboy bangs, he recalls Tom Petty in the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” Alice in Wonderland–themed music video. Managing to simultaneously suggest a hundred eccentric celebrity recluses (Jackson, Wilson, Spector, Nosferatu) while never distinctly channeling any one, Depp stutters out his geeky, nervous tic of a laugh and tries out a Ed Sullivan/petulant teenager diction. He telegraphs strained, arrested-development boyishness, including points of pop culture reference frozen in the Sixties—when explaining the practicality of a beard-growing candy chewable, he cites a target audience of “beatniks for one, folk singers and motorbike riders.” It’s an intently stylized, fussy bit of acting; when Wonka sits up from reclining, it’s without the aid of his arms; he bends at the waist like someone who’s been hypnotized in a 1930’s Universal cheapie. Over-rehearsed, specific tics abound here, but there’s no matching interior specificity; here’s the measure of Depp’s matinee weirdo callowness. All his manicured oddity is as rub-off as clown makeup; Depp’s a Crispin Glover you can take home safely, a Crispin Glover that you know leaves the strangeness in his dressing room.
Unfortunately added to this rendition is Wonka’s flashback-history; we see the factory’s host as a little boy, head encased in grim braces and headgear imposed by a stern dentist father (Christopher Lee) who forbids his son candy. So Wonka, Jr. savors his filched gumballs in hiding—he’s like one of those kids with fundamentalist parents who had to listen to Marilyn Manson on the sly, at his friend’s house, after school. Here Charlie and Willy’s passions have a common basis: allure based on unfulfilled want, through financial limitation or parental censure, the basic building block of obsession. The master-of-ceremonies Wonka as artist-mentor figure is Burton’s condescension to giving his product meaning; he’s forever ghostwriting future critical biographies with these boldfaced “personal touches” (Tim Burton: The Storyteller, coming soon to a bookstore near you!), but when he steps back from playing curator of extravagant oddities to manhandle our heartstrings, things go south. The awful, treacle-y Big Fish (also scripted by Charlie‘s screenwriter, John August) was given over entirely to this tendency which, in some quarters, proved critical catnip; writers just love a handily highlighted subtext that they can deliver on a paragraph platter. It leaves plenty of space for the reviewer to spend going tit-for-tat with the art department, calling out visual influences (“There’s German Expressionism! And 2001: A Space Odyssey! And the Land of Dairy Queen!”) with the erudite pride of a seasoned tourist. Of course all of this is just a diversion, something to reassure that this is a better breed of Big Summer Movie. In truth, Wonka as good as gives the movie a tagline that encapsulates its faith in tacky decadence: “Candy doesn’t have to have a point, that’s why it’s candy.”
Burton’s overinfatuated by accreted on-screen bric-a-brac, and a lot of his filmography’s made up of scenes that feel like unveilings, whipping the sheet off of zeppelin hangar-sized creations while Danny Elfman’s score prances around, chanting, impressed. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a guided tour for its centerpiece, plays right into this tendency, shuttling an audience from one multimillion dollar world of pure imagination to the next. The director, who began his creative career as a Walt Disney animator, has probably made the best approximation of a Disney World visit that I can remember in a Hollywood movie, far superior to ride-themed movies like the Depp-vehicle Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion. There’s the sense of Epcot Center–esque, set-designed internationalism in the movie’s globe-trotting sequences; the creepy-retro, "It’s a Small World" vibe of the reedy, age-faded animatronics that Wonka uses for his introductory fanfare; the bobbing water park flume ride on chocolate rapids; the sense of warehoused interiority to all the spaces we visit; even a fireworks display with every visit.
The Oompa Loompas, Wonka’s tiny indentured servants (all played by the actor Deep Roy, digitally multiplied) provide the floor show. Their songs, moral-chanting landmarks of childhood terror in the first Chocolate Factory film, are transformed into a knockout spin through pop eclectia; film composer and former Oingo Boingo Danny Elfman provides the vocals on four tunes that move through vervy Blaxploitation bass and nutty psychedelia before culminating in a channel-surfing number with a sound that’s equal parts Devo and Queen. Staging these songs, Burton’s spectacle-heavy catalog of junk culture, of Esther Williams and Bollywood, runs wild—they’re as much fun as his least deliberately magical movie, Mars Attacks! , that cacophony of mismatched celebrities that came off like an explosion in a Vegas dressing room. I like this stuff; Burton looks less like a vaunted personal artist here and more like a kid from working class Burbank with an appetite for glam, his eyes spangled over from too many special effects movies in the rumpus room. He’s a less pretentious, less sensual Ken Russell; better still, he’s Mike Teavee, filmmaker.