Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 03, 2005 4:53 pm 
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Slick unease: Tim Burton's beautiful but nasty Roald Dahl remake

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be disquieting but isn't as creepy as you'd think from the parallels people have drawn between Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka and Michael Jackson. Parallels there are, mind you. Willy is of feminine appearance, with wig-like straightened hair, sickly smile, and too-perfect, unnaturally pale face. He lives in a preserve that's Neverland-like, the chocolate factory he's done over to resemble a candy jungle. Big difference: he doesn't like little boys -- doesn't like children at all.

If Tim Burton's Willy Wonka isn't quite Michael Jackson, who is he? For one thing, like Edward Scissorhands (in his first appearance he's got giant scissors in his hand) Willy's a remarkable misfit who can't relate to ordinary people. If you're feeling ordinary, this typically beautiful but strange motion picture from Tim Burton may arouse mixed feelings. Its initial sense of order and logic turns to unease when Depp's Wonka appears. After a while the whole elaborate spectacle wears out its welcome as its little initial core of warmth goes cold. Not so different from many a classic children's story, I guess, it's full of terror and random cruelty. And like so many of those, it sprints to a happily-ever-after finale that leaves our unease unresolved.

Ostensibly the story celebrates a happy family and offers hope to victims of bad ones. Willy's a sad adult who can't pronounce the word "parent" but is saved at the end by regular dinners at Charlie's house -- becoming a partial member of the loving little household. Despite such poverty they've had to live on cabbage soup, Charlie chooses unhesitatingly to remain with mum, dad, and all four grandparents, who sleep together, the grandparents do, in one bed in the center of the little gingerbread house.

Willy -- in flashbacks not in Dahl's story -- is seen with dentist father, made to wear a hideous cage on his head slightly exaggerating the orthodontic braces once actually used. Dentist dad forbids all sweets, and Willy becomes obsessed with them.

Wonka's become a huge success in business by leaving home early, and it's an understatement to say he's a genius inventor. He works miracles. Adapting the children's tale, Burton deals only in superlatives. Everything is the best, the most, the most typical. The chocolate factory is the biggest in the world by a multiple of hundreds.

The factory's been closed for twenty years but still mysteriously produces vast quantities of universally coveted sweets. What happened to all the townspeople left unemployed by the official closure? The movie doesn't tell, except that Charlie's grandfather is bravely poor, in his cozy bed. Five golden tickets are randomly planted to allow five children to visit the secret factory -- this, it turns out, is to find an heir -- or, as the joke is, a hair, because discovering one gray one during his biannual haircut made Willy realize he needs somebody to take over the factory when he grows old.

The movie's based on the old-fashioned moralistic concept of good vs. bad character. Except for Charlie, each of the other children with golden tickets is dominated by an evil trait: gluttony, snobbery, ambition, or pride. Charlie alone is loving, modest -- and nice. Freddie Highmore of Neverland, who works with Johnny Depp again playing Charlie, has a sweet spontaneity that makes Charlie's goodness likeable and real.

The factory setup and the ranging of children types is marked by stereotyping and even racism, beginning with the fat roly-poly German family with their gluttonous son whose father runs a sausage shop, and continuing with the snobbish English people, the technology-mad Americans and the obsessive, competitive American females with the mother who pushes her daughter to win prizes in meaningless things. She's going for a Guinness record for longest time chewing the same piece of bubblegum. Strangest and most perverse of all, Willy Wonka has brought little creatures from a country where they adore coca to be his slave workforce -- the Oompa Loompas -- who're all clones of the same tiny Indian man (Deep Roy) -- a model of at-home outsourcing, perhaps. The conceit is as astonishing as it is weird. Burton has his nasty cake and eats it too, because the less likeable children are done away with at first, and then brought back and allowed to leave the factory, if somewhat the worse for wear. That and Willy's final redemption seem weasely on Burton's part.

There's a song and dance routine done by the Oompa Loompas at each of the bad children's moments of downfall and it's pointed out early on that this means Willy had everything planned. But he pretends his worker-entertainers are just good at improvisation. The very idea of such a thing in such an elaborately staged movie is a huge joke. Tim Burton is the most calculating of cinematic artists, and a master of high kitsch.

Particularly disturbing is the way the spoiled child of James Fox's snobbish English nut factory owner (Julia Winter) is attacked by dozens of squirrels and she and Fox are thrown down a tube to be smothered in weeks-old rotting garbage. The chewing-gum girl's fate, being blown up into a huge ball and turned blue, and the technology boy's, being shrunk and then stretched wafer thin, or the German kid's, being jammed into a chocolate-filled tube, aren't really any nicer; in fact their damage is more permanent. Depp's pronounced American accent is a curious inconsistency. He did manage a good Scottish one for Neverland.

It's a happily incestuous crew. Depp has worked with Burton famously before, and Depp has worked with Freddie Highmore, and Helena Bonham Carter's a Burton regular who's back with Depp as his dead bride in Burton's coming delight, Corpse Bride, which will also feature Oompa Loompa Deep Roy.

There's no doubt Tim Burton has a gift for the menace and unreality of children's literature, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for all its beauty and exactitude, is an indigestible confection.

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