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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor

(Warner Bros.)

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I certainly wouldn’t want him as a father figure, and that’s not really the point of him as a character.
—Tim Burton, “Making the Mix”


“The Oompa-Loompas were obviously important to the story and I just felt that part of the ‘real’ quality is important. I liked the idea that they all looked the same.” Tim Burton’s peculiar indirection seems perfect for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Oompa-Loopmas a re surely “important” and in his version, they do all look the same. Anything after that is yours to decipher.


The Two-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD (it also comes in a one-disc version, full or widescreen) includes an oddball mix of extras on the second disc (the first features only the movie and a lengthy trailer), including the seven-minute “Becoming Oompa-Loompa,” which offers a brief summary of Deep Roy’s many efforts to get in shape, learning to mountain climb (for one brief pose on a fake mountainside, meaning, the interviewees here, so enthusiastic, are also exaggerating), as well as how to fall on boxes like stuntmen and how to play five instruments in a rock band. The featurette notes as well that digital magic turned the game Deep Roy into hundreds of factory workers (he also provides instruction for the interactive feature, “Oompa-Loompa Dance”’ “I knew I could dance,” says Deep Roy in the doc, “I never knew that I could do the steps”).


All this info is fine, if not precisely brilliant. And it suits Burton’s movie, which is mostly perky, slightly edgy, and dully episodic. After spending some minutes setting up darling Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his loving, poverty-stricken family, it soon diverts to Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) inside his factory. At this point, the film becomes a series of set pieces, each punishing the bad or greedy kids who compete with Charlie for a big prize.


While hardly a precise translation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, this Charlie is all about buddies Burton and Depp, sinewy and strange, a perverse comedy that includes some few kids’ elements, none of them sugary. If Charlie Bucket embodies the film’s moral themes, specifically love of family and endurance in the face of hardship. Like all members of his family, including his cabbage-chopping mom (Helena Bonham Carter) and toothpaste-top-screwing father (Noah Taylor), Charlie is very poor, very pasty, and very agreeable. He’s only sort of, as Burton insists in the DVD doc, “ordinary.” He appreciates all his family’s quirks, including his Grandpa George’s (David Morris) sardonic asides and his Grandpa Joe’s (David Kelly) quietly earnest encouragements.


The Buckets live in a teeny, tilting shack located in the shadow of a gigantic candy factory, owned by the famously reclusive, fabulously wealthy, fantastically unusual chocolatier Willy Wonka. The plot kicks in, as you well know, when Willy Wonka announces a contest: five golden tickets, hidden in chocolate bars, will grant five children access to the factory for one day’s tour. Each winner can bring a guardian, and at the end of the day, a special prize will be awarded to one. After several purchases (specifically, two more than his usual yearly allotment, which is one, for his birthday), Charlie finds a ticket, and so, on the appointed day, he and four other children plus parents—Charlie brings his Grandpa Joe—arrive at the gate, pert and expectant.


Following a creepy Disney Small World-style performance that ends in the dolls melting down, the group of children and guardians enters the factory, led by their tour guide, Willy Wonka himself. He’s thrilled by the melting doll faces. Clapping like a little kid by way of introducing himself. Decked out in velvet dress coat, top hat, rubber gloves, and pageboy haircut, not to mention whiter-than-white face makeup, he fidgets along, uneasy around the children and deft in his dealings with them. He greets them by way of a line he’s heard (“Good morning starshine, the earth says hello!”), and when that falls flat, he ushers them inside, careful not to touch them if he can help it.


In the factory, they are treated to a magical scene—a world unfolding before them that stretches far beyond physical and temporal limits. “Sure is toasty in here,” observes a guest, and yes, Willy Wonka explains, the heat is intended to accommodate the workers. Specifically, these are the Oompa Loompas make the candy and mete out judgments against misbehaving children. Each child-parent set reveals its particular dysfunction, corresponding to symptomatic “sins”: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) and his mother (Franziska Troegner), snooty, hypercompetitive Violet (Annasophia Robb) and her mother (Missi Pyle), spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) and her father (James Fox), and conceited, Doom-trained aggressor Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry) and his dad (Adam Godley) all make Charlie and Grandpa Joe look emotionally healthy and morally sound by comparison. Portrayed in broad, cartoonish strokes, the kids’ cruelties serve as comedy, though they’re not always funny. (The digitized squirrel assault on Veruca is broken down in the DVD extra, “Attack of the Squirrels.”)


The non-Charlie children are so loathsome that their various “punishments” seem deserved. These are staged as song-and-dance numbers by the Oompa Loompas, modeled after scenes that some parents will recall from other venues, for instance, Esther Williams musicals, the Who’s guitar-smashing rock shows, Hair, Psycho, 2001, The Fly, and even Burton and Depp’s Edward Scisssorhands, in Willy’s flashbacks to his troubled relationship with his dentist father (Christopher Lee).


At issue between Willy and his father is precisely candy—as indulgence, metaphor, vice, and sensual delight. Charlie shares Willy Wonka’s love of candy, for its own sake, for bestowing sweetness and satisfaction on its consumers. When an exasperated Mike Teavee complains that nothing in tour has a point, Charlie patiently explains, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.” At the same time, this being a Tim Burton film, the celebration of childish pleasures is not simply joyous, but tweaked. Yes, candy is grand, but it’s also symptomatic of a culture premised on consumption.


The kids and their parents are optimum consumers, always looking for the next product, greedy to get their hands and mouths on it. Willy Wonka has made his fortune on this pattern. Even his beloved Oompa Loompas are functions of this pattern, essentially “purchased” by Willy, a jungle-dwelling tribe sick of eating green caterpillars and glad to work on the chocolate river in exchange for endless supply of coca beans. Consumers and consumed (as entertainment for Willy Wonka, at least), the Oompa Loompas remain an unreconstructed retro fantasy—happy darkies, “rescued” by the whitest man on the planet.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s incongruities are often fun, in particular Depp’s frisky line readings (check his explanation: “Everything in this room is eatable; even I’m eatable, but that, my children, is called cannibalism, and frowned on in most societies”), and weird affect. But the narrative rhythms are uneven, and Charlie remains wifty and undeveloped, more an emblem of goodness than a full-on character. The movie skips about to cover multiple storylines, including Willy’s memories and the four bad children’s separate exploits, all eventually pulled together by Charlie’s good-boy summary of what matters most, his cozy family.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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