Make time go faster!
—Veruca Salt (Julia Winter)
Tim Burton’s much-anticipated rendition of Charlie’s saga is mostly perky, slightly edgy, and eventually, awkwardly episodic. Spending some early time setting up dear Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his loving, poverty-stricken family, once it diverts to Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), well, that’s sort of the end of forward motion. Following, the story swirls around Willy, with attending supporting characters caught up in his vortex. How this works for you will depend on what you want.
That’s not to say that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is only a relative experience. Its choices are clear, its attention to the fantasy and trauma embodied by Willy makes a peculiar, sometimes provocative sense. But it is not precisely Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, and neither is it a reprise of the Gene Wilder movie. It is a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp confection, in its sinewy strangeness and perverse comedy. The kids’ story can be found here, but it’s not sugary.
Charlie Bucket’s part is structured as introduction—to moral themes, to love of family, to survival in the face of hardship. Like all members of his family, including his cabbage-chopping (Helena Bonham Carter) and toothpaste-top-screwing father (Noah Taylor), and four grandparents, he is very poor, very pasty, and very agreeable. While Grandpa George (David Morris) can be counted on for a sardonic aside, the family is generally accepting of their lot. They are reminded of this lot daily, as their teeny, tilting shack is 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 (David Kelly)—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. Decked out in purple 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 (all played by a digitally multiplied and reduced Deep Roy) 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 his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) look emotionally open and morally sound by comparison. Portrayed in broad, cartoonish strokes, the kids’ cruelties serve as comedy, though they’re not always funny.
Indeed, 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 Wonka, 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.
To hold to the book, the movie must include the Oompa Loompas, but that doesn’t make them easy. 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, especially, is undeveloped, more an emblem of goodness than a full-on character. While the novel maintains a more or less steady focus through Charlie’s perspective of all these crazy goings-on, the film is less coherent. It 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.