Growing up, there was no movie I think I enjoyed more than the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s quirky story. Part of it had to do with me being young and thinking that an edible room with a chocolate river is just about the coolest thing in the world, but most of it, I think, has to do with the utter mastery of Gene Wilder’s performance. Those of you who aren’t familiar with Gene Wilder’s work are missing out on some of the finer points of cinema in the last 40 years. Think Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Producers, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Stir Crazy, &c.
I knew just from the trailer’s of this new Tim Burton iteration that I wasn’t going to like it. When it saw it for the first time, I felt a sense of abject betrayal that anyone, even Johnny Depp, for whom I otherwise have a lot of respect, would even attempt the Sisyphean task of measuring up to Wilder’s performance. It doesn’t help at all that Burton’s style is not at all suited to such a script. I understand that the 1971 version took a lot of liberties with the original story, and that Dahl’s predilection for oddly twisted storylines seems like the ideal project for someone as morbidly quirky as Burton, but the latter takes the dark, screwball ambience to such an extreme that it patently ruins the magic of the story.
In Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (as opposed to 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), Wonka is a strange, heavily made-up man who harbors a lot of neuroses from a bad childhood relationship with his father (a facet, I believe, which was not in the original book). Depp plays the character well (we knew he could: just look at his portrayal of Raoul Duke), but the character itself is a disappointment, falling far short of the exceedingly eccentric but always composed and charismatic Wonka that Wilder gave us so many years ago. In fact, the acting in general is far superior in the earlier version, no doubt helped by the artificial surrealism that Burton tries to impose on all his films. Peter Ostrum as Charlie is a cute blonde kid (with bad pitch, I grant you) and not the Harry Potter clone of the new one. Veruca Salt is an honest-to-god Traci Lords clone, pouty and bitchy and utterly convincing. Mike TV is a simple spoiled boy, as opposed to the computer genius that Burton gives us (although I really appreciated the line about particles being different from waves).
But perhaps the most irksome of all the differences is the ending. In the ’71 version, the contest is contigent upon a question of morality: a Wonka employee poses as the rival candymaker Slugworth, who offers each child fabulous wealth if they get him an Everlasting Gobstopper. When Wonka tells Charlie he has lost the contest (because he stole Fizzy Lifting Drinks), Charlie leaves the Gobstopper on Wonka’s desk, thus displaying integrity (if not logic). In Burton’s version, Charlie merely wins by default (a great lesson for kids). When Wonka offers him the factory, Charlie says that he’ll only go if his family comes, so Wonka (who, remember, is neurotic in the new version) revokes his offer and goes home. This is followed by an incredibly contrived subplot tacked onto the end of the film, involving Wonka and his father the dentist (played by the woefully undercast Christopher Lee). Only after we’ve suffered through it can Burton’s diversion rejoin the proper storyline and Charlie gets the factory and his family (which includes, I might add, a father who was absent from the book). It’s anticlimactic, and it ruins the story as far as I’m concerned. Not only is the morality play gone from the equation, but turning Wonka the Enigma into a bundle of primal fears and unresolved issues effectively mitigates him into something unimpressive and unimportant.
One other aspect I should mention, even though I don’t find it particularly important, is the Oompa Loompas. Burton cast one midget (named Deep Roy) and digitally cloned him into an army of Oompa Loompas. The songs they sing use Dahl’s original lyrics, but run the gamut from disco to heavy metal. They’re fun, I suppose, but also unintelligible; all in all, however, they aren’t a contentious point with me, as they are merely incidental to the story, anyway.
Like Sideways, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory‘s original movie adaptation, while not completely true to the book, turned it into something much better and longer-lasting. Unless you really like Tim Burton, and you don’t have a deep affection for the ’71 version, don’t even bother seeing the new one. It’s just not worth it.