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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory   B

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August (based on the book by Roald Dahl)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Missi Pyle, James Fox, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee.

Review by Rob Vaux

Things are gained and things are lost in the new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Compared to the first film adaptation (1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), it has a much larger budget and a far grander vision, allowing it to bring Roald Dahl's beloved children's novel to life in previously impossible ways. But while it finds more details to illuminate and delivers a more accurate rendition of the original story, so too does it lose a certain sense of innocence that made the earlier film so charming. It's drenched with corporate affectation, heavy on the bells and whistles, but light on genuine soul. The 1971 version, with limited funds and exponentially fewer special effects, nonetheless brought a "let's put on a show" exuberance to the tale that this go-round just can't duplicate.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of wonders to be had, and with director Tim Burton tailor-made for the material, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is far more in keeping with the letter of Dahl's original work. That should come as a relief to any of the book's fans who may have wondered what the jungles of Loompaland looked like, or always wanted to see those trained squirrels dispose of Veruca Salt. Burton was never much on plot, of course, and the novel's absurdly simple premise (married with its delightful attention to detail) is right up his alley. It also features a supremely Burtonesque outsider in the funny/scary Willy Wonka (played here by Johnny Depp), who opens the gates of his factory to the five children lucky enough to find golden tickets in his candy bars. Gene Wilder's earlier interpretation of the character is practically sacrosanct, so Burton and Depp take him in a wildly different direction... with mixed results. They play up Wonka's isolation and social dysfunction, with Depp affecting a Michael Jackson-like aloofness that is equally hysterical and disturbing. Less successful is the tacked-on backstory for Wonka -- with Christopher Lee playing his imposing dentist father -- which represents the film's largest departure from the book. While Lee is always a welcome presence, the subplot is far more mistake than enhancement.

Charlie does better when it sticks to the source, using Burton's unparalleled visual eye to breathe life into Dahl's most fanciful and far-flung notions. This is especially apparent when dealing with the five children chosen to visit the factory. Charlie himself -- the Dickensian waif whose essential good-heartedness forms the tale's moral center -- is played with appropriate sympathy by Freddie Highmore. His discovery of the last golden ticket is at first the sole instance of kismet in a universe populated by the undeserving. But it's in the remaining four children -- who are slowly dispatched, one by one, during the journey through Wonka's lair -- that Charlie really hits its stride. The earlier film was a touch too blasé about what evil little trolls they were, and struggled a bit with the ironic nastiness that accompanied their respective fates. Here, Burton plays up their monstrosity to perfection, portraying each one as the overt embodiment of a deadly sin: gluttonous chocolate connoisseur Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), greedy me-monkey Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), proud gum-chewer Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb), and wrathful video addict Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry). Their dark comeuppance within the bowels of the factory has the right combination of fairy-tale innocence and gleeful insanity, touched off by special effects that are now capable of fully expressing what might happen when a little girl turns into a blueberry.

The remainder of the film is all about the sets, props, and computerized visuals. They're fittingly professional, as with any Burton production, and the literal eye candy does justice to the book's joy of all things sweet and sugary. The Oompa-Loompas -- tiny beings who run the factory at Wonka's behest -- are all played by actor Deep Roy in one of the film's better sight gags. Special attention also goes to Missi Pyle -- the funniest woman no one's ever heard of -- who gives a great supporting turn as type-A terror Mrs. Beauregard. And yet for all its good points, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory never shakes the sense that it is product first, touching fable second. While Burton is in decent form, he again struggles to give human voice to his astounding imagery -- a voice that the film could have really used at times. Perhaps no better example of this comes with the Oompa-Loompas' periodic songs: a staple of the 1971 version, which have become as much a part of this universe as Wonka's top hat and cane. The new numbers are closer to the novel -- with lyrics straight from Dahl and good accompanying music by Danny Elfman -- but they're so badly mixed that the words are hopelessly garbled beneath a thundering rock beat and intricately choreographed CGI dancing. The rest of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory never succumbs to such calamity, but neither does it shy away from the philosophy that spawned it. As good as it is at times, it's still missing a heart: the one thing about Dahl that postproduction can't insert.

Review published 07.14.2005.

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