Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"Good morning starshine! The Earth says Hello!"

In a recent interview, Gene Wilder expressed confusion and sadness over the decision to "remake" Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "It's all about money." says Wilder. "It's just some people sitting around thinking, How can we make some more money?' Why else would you remake Willy Wonka? I don't see the point of going back and doing it all over again." Wilder's assessment of Hollywood greed is perfectly understandable if largely misplaced in this instance. It's also downright ironic considering the origins of the 1971 movie whose very title was determined by the need for product tie-ins (namely Quaker Oats' new Wonka chocolate line). Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is in no way a remake of Mel Stuart's classic film and is, in many regards, truer both to the letter and the spirit of Roald Dahl's darkly comic morality tale. And while Warner Brothers undoubtedly greenlit CATCC because of its pre-sold status, the film is also a matter of creative kismet. Given the story's dark overtones, comedy, horror, and bent psychology, Tim Burton was born to film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Knowing full well the ubiquity of the Gene Wilder film, Burton and screenwriter John August play merciless games with expectations, giving us larger doses of genuine Dahl while also presenting some elaborate variations on a theme we've long since memorized.

Charlie Bucket, played here by the uncannily sincere Freddy Highmore, lives in desperate poverty in a ramshackle hovel (designed after a Burton doodle) positioned squarely, and poetically, at the end of a long street that leads directly to the imposing art-deco edifice that is the Wonka chocolate factory. Charlie's father (Noah Taylor) works for peanuts in a toothpaste factory, screwing plastic caps onto the ends of toothpaste tubes, while his mother (Helena Bonham-Carter wearing a pair of stained false teeth) cooks huge pots of boiled cabbage for the family, including all four grandparents. In shades of August and Burton's Big Fish, Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), a former Wonka employee, regales the Wonka-obsessed Charlie with anecdotes about the remarkable candyman and why he finally decided to close his factory to the outside world (as Charlie has never seen or heard Mr. Wonka, we're teased by obscure half-glimpses). "I was much younger in those days." says Grandpa Joe while Charlie's imagination shows him every bit as old as he is now. But while Charlie idolizes the mysterious Willy Wonka, the Bucket family, we learn, are Wonka's victims. Grandpa Joe lost his job when Wonka closed his factory (to defend his ego, rather than his business, from competitors) and later Mr. Bucket loses his position at the toothpaste factory when increased sales due to an increase of Wonka chocolate-induced cavities allows management to replace him with a machine. No one bears a grudge, however, even if Wonka's chocolate is now too expensive for the family to buy any more than once a year. In fact, the wistfully nostalgic Grandpa Joe wants nothing more than to get one last look at Willy Wonka and the inside of his remarkable chocolate factory, so Charlie's miraculous discovery of the last Golden Ticket is as much a fulfilled wish for Joe as it is for Charlie.

But expectations are made to be shattered and Mr. Wonka, if you hadn't guessed, is nothing he's cracked up to be. Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka is hardly Dahl's winsome elf. Burton's Wonka is a nightmare figure; both childlike and childish, pathologically self-absorbed, and hopelessly inept at human interaction after his years-long seclusion (I suspect that Wonka is a partial caricature of Tim Burton, who likewise suffers from severe social anxiety). He doesn't even remember Grandpa Joe, his former loyal employee. And as for the children who won his Golden Ticket contest, they're clearly pawns from the word go and Willy Wonka has nothing but contempt for them, even Charlie ("You're just lucky to be here, aren't you?"). Caricatures of vice though they may be, Burton and August invite the audience to at least pity the contest winners as victims (if self-made), a full reversal from the 1971 film. As in Dahl's book, the ruthless and poetic punishments meted out by Wonka's factory are, at least as sensitive Charlie is concerned, potentially lethal, and Burton treats each with an unnerving earnestness (Violet Beauregard's blueberryization in particular is given the full horror movie treatment). Charlie's worries seem justified given Wonka's scatterbrained and mercurial nature. After all, the factory is a manifestation of Wonka's childlike obsessions and his "genius" as a candymaker rests upon the fact that, inside his own world, things can happen simply because he wants them to. As cynical brat Mike Teevee says, "You all think he's some kind of genius, but he's an idiot!" In a world where the unstable Willy Wonka can bend reality to his will, you probably have just cause for worry.

Appropriately, Willy Wonka, too, is a victim. Willy's overprotective father, dentist Wilbur Wonka (played wonderfully by Christopher Lee), denied him a genuine childhood, tossing his Halloween candy into the fireplace and making him wear orthopedic gear that looks like a medieval torture device. This has left Wonka so emotionally shattered that he's literally incapable of saying the word "parents". So Willy Wonka, disgusted with the world, hides all too snugly inside his vast factory with the impersonal (and comfortably predictable) Oompa Loompas, losing not only his ability to communicate, but also rapidly losing touch with his own humanity. Even the seemingly magnanimous Golden Ticket contest is revealed to be another of Wonka's exercises in unthinking selfishness. Appropriately, in the end, it's not Willy Wonka who doles out the redemption, but the genuinely good-hearted Charlie. His name is in the title for a very good reason.

On one count, however, Burton and August's extremely clever psychological retooling of Roald Dahl's story will work against the film in the long run. Their version of Willy Wonka is so firmly wedded to the specifics of John August's storyline that it's impossible for him to stand on his own. While the 1971 film has its flaws, Gene Wilder's coolly mysterious Willy Wonka, the role of his life, is a triumph of characterization, in turns dangerous and genuinely loving. When the film falls flat in places, Wilder's charismatic Wonka simply picks it up and keeps going. But Johnny Depp's Wonka, although well performed and extremely funny, is almost as much a prop as Burton's spiral-ridden chocolate factory. It's little wonder that the clip Depp presented on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno fell as flat as it did. Without context, Depp's Willy Wonka is little more than an outline, and a singularly unattractive one at that. Point for point, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably both a better film and a better adaptation than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but it's every bit a world unto itself as Wonka's fantasy factory. It's a safe bet that, in another 34 years, the Willy Wonka most people remember will be Gene Wilder. So quit worrying, Gene.


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