Tim Burton...'fess up!

I enjoyed Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The decision to develop the character of Willy Wonka was great, even if it is entirely at odds with the Roald Dahl original, which depicts Mr. Wonka as exactly "just [this] weird guy" that Tim Burton seems to need to rewrite (Entertainment Weekly 8 July 2005: p.25). I'm not disagreeing that it's great to have "a little bit of the flavor of why Wonka is the way he is," as Burton says (ibid.). However, Burton also says that what differentiates his film from the 1971 flick is that he went back the book and stayed closer to it. He also added that "a lot of people are huge fans of the movie and hold it in awe. I wasn't one of them." This is where I have to say a Great Big Bah! And it is this overkill on distancing himself and his production from the original film that is why I say Burton really let me--and all of us--down this time.

Again, I did enjoy the film very much. I love Johnny Depp in almost anything, but especially when he gets to play "out there" stuff like Edward Scissorhands and Captain Jack Sparrow. He's so delightful when he's playing someone who is mentally amiss yet HOT. And there's always that charming queerness about him, whatever he plays. The rewriting of the character (from book and original film) worked well. He was creepy and phobic about children, and I confess to having been sucked in by the lesson that he learns about the value of family (and how he sticks out even as he attempts to blend in). Christopher Lee as his psycho dentist dad was another excellent casting choice and character detail. Burning chocolate in the fireplace is just too damn funny, as was the nightmare headgear poor little Willy had to wear.

Furthermore, the new take on Beauregards (and the excellent casting of the wide-eyed Annasophia Robb as Violet and pop-eyed mother Missi Pile) was a brilliant update on the book and original film. And the casting of David Kelly as Grandpa Joe could not have been wiser. That man just oozes wit, charisma, and life. I have never forgotten his utterly brilliant comic performance as O'Reilly in the Fawlty Towers episode "The Builders" (1975). [I did not know he was in a Doctor Who episode in 1966 ("The Smugglers") until I visited that glorious font of trivia,
IMDB.] That he's still getting great parts at 76 is delightful (though he's looked older than that since he was 60, I think). In any case - such casting and characters helped to make the film a delight, as did the unbelievably adorable Freddie Highmore as Charlie (I liked him better here than I did in Finding Neverland, but perhaps that was about the character more than the actor).

But now I must complain. Mike Teavee was updated but did not, to my mind, emerge as a coherent character/stereotype. Was he a violent videogame addict or a nerd that knew exactly how TV works? The two did not go together for me at all. Watching him stamp on candy beachballs in that violent way was meant to be frightening, to be sure, but how did it go with videogame addiction or knowledge of the working of TV's? The original film version was far more cohesive.

A much bigger point of concern for me was the Oompa Loompas (OLs). I didn't like them one bit. Casting Deep Roy highlights the (neo-)colonial racism of the tribal dwarf cocoa addicts but does not emerge, as I read it anyhow, as either parody or critique. Making them apparent clones didn't work at all for me; again, I could not read it as critique ("they might as well all be the same guy, given how they're treated," for example) nor futuristic representation (Wonka doesn't claim they're clones, just tribesmen). That said, I don't think the Oompa Loompa's faired much better in the original Dahl novel. They were white- (not Caucasian but white-white) skinned, which I guess is meant as a flip in expectation and attempt not to be racist, but they're a primitive little tribe that agrees to servitude (arguably enslavement) because Big Rich King Wonka can whisk them away to live in a factory (do they not miss the SUN, for heaven's sake?) and eat all the chocolate their obsessed childlike little hearts' desire.

On a more superficial level, I hated the songs. They sucked. 'Nuff said.

But it's not trying to say one film was better or worse than the other that interests me, nor which one stuck closer to the original novel. It's the fact that Burton denies his indebtedness to the 1971 film, and he's being dishonest.

Try these comparisons, for just a few examples:

-In the Dahl novel, the children (except for Charlie) bring both parents.
-In the 1971 film, they bring one parent each.
-In the Burton film, they bring one parent each (though Violet and Mike Teavee do bring the parent of the opposite gender than in the original film).

-In the Dahl novel, there is no evidence to indicate the country of origin of the children beyond the plainly working-class Brit Bucket family. Veruca, for instance, is not depicted as identifiably British (her father uses the expression "fellers" when talking to the newspaper men and is in the peanut business: sounds like a crack at rich American businessmen with no class to me). And Augustus Gloop uses expressions like "This stuff is tee-riffic!" and "Oh boy" and "Fish me out!" Hardly German, eh?
-In the 1971 film, Veruca is British and Augustus is German.
-In the Burton film, Veruca is British and Augustus is German.

-The sets in both films looked remarkably similar, and Quentin Blake's charming squiggles in black and white do not necessitate that.

Again, it is not that Burton does not go back to the novel for a few more touches than did the 1971 film (Veruca in the squirrel/nut room, the big candy boat with oars instead of a paddle, Charlie having both father and mother, etc.). But, in the end, the film uses so much that the original film did that it is impossible to believe--entirely impossible--that Burton hasn't watched it at least a dozen times.

In the end, I enjoyed the new film (let's call it what it is: a remake) and I still enjoy the original. Johnny Depp's Willy took a bit more getting used to than Gene Wilder's, and at first I wondered if he would ruin the ensemble flick the way Jim Carrey ruined A Series of Unfortunate Events with his scenery-chewing haminess. But he didn't, and I do truly love the way Burton/Depp expanded on and made a coherent story for who Wonka is and why he is the way he is. Very creative and fun. But I still love Gene Wilder's cruel/kind Wonka (no closer really to the original book than Depp's). The way Wilder sings "Pure Imagination" makes me misty-eyed to this day, as it invokes our deep desire as adults not to be adults anymore but to live as eternal youths in a blissful wonderland of our imaginations, where everything is sweet and edible and, even if not entirely safe, is magical.

I'd like to finish on that note, but I'm talking mostly about Burton and not Wilder right now. I wish the man would be mensch enough to just admit he liked the original film, had some good ideas for updating/revising/expanding it, and that he copied one hell of a lot of the look and characterization from the original film so as not to alienate those who love the film or because he can't think of it any other way or because his backers told him not to make it too different--or whatever is the truth. For it's surely untrue that he made a truly original film.


Kate said...

Can't look as critically at movies and media like you do. If something strikes me as way off, then I can posit an opinion worthy of debate.
I loved Tim Burton's take on the movie and having never been sentimentally involved with Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, have to say I much prefer Depp's take on it. And i found Deep Roy's Oompa Loompa's much less annoying the the orange hair, green skinned version of the '71 movie. Or was it orange skin and green hair?
And to top it off, real squirells did in Veruca! Loved it!

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing this on TV when I was a kid. I remember being scared by Augustus falling into the chocolate lake, but I don't remember the tunnel sequence.