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children's literature, childhood and culture (and anything else that strikes my fancy).

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Location: pittsburgh, U.S. Outlying Islands

carbon-based life form: thinking, reading and gardening. New College alum; current grad student writing a dissertation. I specialize in children's literature, media, and culture, and queer/gender studies, with a strong interest in 19th century British literature and culture. I like history, a lot.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

greetings from mr willy wonka!

I've been collecting my thoughts about Charlie & the Chocolate Factory for the last couple of hours. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it - time flew in the theatre. I laughed a lot, the audience laughed a lot, there was solid applause at the film's conclusion.

Johnny Depp is brilliant, truly brilliant. My not-too-thorough internet research suggests that Depp based the "look" of Wonka on Vogue editor Anna Wintour, but there seems to be some kind of critical agreement that there's an awful lot of Michael Jackson in his character. As someone who spent nearly two years working on Jackson (and JM Barrie), I have to say I see Jackson in this Wonka - the pale, pale skin and the high pitched voice are dead giveaways, but Wonka's skewed perception of what's "weird," and his vexed relationship with his father signalled Jackson as much as anything else.
But this is not necessarily a bad thing - I imagined Jackson giving tours of Neverland Ranch while Wonka tours the kids around his factory, and I think this is a reasonable and inoffensive parallel.

Freddie Highmore as Charlie was genius casting - allegedly Depp pulled for him after working with him in Finding Neverland. Highmore's Charlie has the right mix of winsomeness and eagerness that I see in the book's Charlie.

My essential take on this film: a great movie, but not faithful to Dahl's novel. The 1971 Wilder film isn't faithful to the book either, though Tim Burton's film is certainly edgier and less treacly, both films fall victim to an annoying need for sentimentality and moral resolution.

Burton's film ends with Charlie refusing the factory when Wonka tells him he can't bring his family. A new backstory for Wonka adds in childhood flashbacks, to his dentist father forbidding him candy. After Charlie's rejection of the factory in favor of staying with his family, Wonka's sales and imagination slip; he seeks out Charlie, who leads the way to reconciliation between the Wonka father and son. Parents, it seems, forbid children things because they're trying to protect them out of love. The film ends with a happy scene of the childlike Willy Wonka successfully incorporated into the Bucket household (now a house of plenty) as a kind of additional child: Mrs Bucket scolds Willy and Charlie with "no talking business at the table, boys."
The camera pulls back, and we see the Bucket shack transplanted to the fields of the Chocolate Room, where our narrator tells us everyone lived happily ever after - that Charlie has won the factory, but Wonka has won a better prize: a loving family.

This slushiness is unnecessary and strangely out of place in a Tim Burton film (although the father-son bit is a kind of wink at Burton's 2003 film Big Fish), and certainly shares nothing with Dahl's original.

That said, the rest of the film is brilliant. Ignoring the Wonka backstory, the film is remarkably consistent with Dahl's novel, though Wonka is played down - he is far less wildly manic and hyper than in the book. But Depp gets Wonka's weirdness across quite effectively, and his disdain for the four revolting children is conveyed in fantastically executed brief facial expressions. The looks of disgust and revulsion Depp conjures up are truly stunning.

The non-narrative elements of the film - namely the sets and effects - are marvellously consistent with and evocative of the mad creativity of Dahl's novel. The Oompa-Loompas, restored to their (offensive) original brown, tiny selves, replicate the touchy worker-employer relations Dahl's novel has been criticised for. In this respect, I think Burton and the scriptwriter, John August, made a wise decision though probably a controversial one. The Oompa-Loompas here appear as some sort of African tribe of cocoa-bean-worshiping semi-savages before being brought to England and turned into factory workers. The Oompa-Loompas bow in response to Wonka's instructions, another oddly servile touch.

But the Oompas also get some of the film's funniest moments - the song and dance production numbers following the demise of each child. These are truly inspired - music by Danny Elfman, using Dahl's original lyrics - each song taking its cue from a particular era of music (80s metal, 70s disco, etc). The Gloop song is perhaps funniest - here, the Oompa-Loompas appear as Busby Berkeley style synchronized swimmers and chorus-line dancers.

The film's opening sequence really strikes a sinister note, in my mind. it's a highly mechanized, industrial image of the chocolate factory at work - bars of chocolate being produced and wrapped by machines. The clanging, repetive music and the images of shiny metal and high-tech machinery reinforces the mechanized, industrial nature of Wonka's corporation. The factory appears, to me, like the semi-chilling images in Van Allsburg's Polar Express, with the industrial North Pole dominated by a single controlling boss. The factory and Wonka are not benign philanthropists - Wonka's a businessman, a moneymaker - and one gets the sense, partly through the film's score - that the whole enterprise is a kind of mechanized behemoth, rolling on unstoppably. The inserted backstory that Grandpa Joe once worked for Wonka, but was then laid off at the factory's closing gives an implied criticism that Wonka's decision led to, or at least accelerated, the family's dire poverty.

There are some moments of utter brilliant referentiality - an Edward Scissorhands reference early on, an extended homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey -and one that my mom picked out after I described it: viewed from the elevator, fluffy pink sheep being sheared for their wool. Wonka mutters: "I don't want to talk about that one." My mom brilliantly suggested Ed Wood, the director Depp portrayed in another Burton film - Wood, the director of terrible sci-fi movies and cross-dresser favoring fluffy angora sweaters.

It's clear as well that the film nods to the 1971 film, directed by Mel Stuart - the tiny entrance to the Chocolate Room, the set of that same room are both wildly similar to the '71 film. But this is NOT a remake of that movie; this is a new adaptation of Dahl's novel. I want to stress this because Wilder has evidently criticized Burton's "remake" of what Wilder and many others perceive to be a classic film. Burton and August and this cast have done something quite different - funnier, edgier and I would argue darker or more sinister - than the '71 film (which is quite good in its own right).

Overall, this is a really good film. For purists of the novel - and Dahl's work in general - the conclusion and added backstories are a big letdown. But the sheer entertainment value of the rest of the movie - and the unbelievably fine acting from Depp and Freddie Highmore - are a sufficient counterweight to the needlessly sentimental conclusion. The children are so over-the-top appalling, as are their parents - and Charlie and the Buckets so clearly normal and decent (but not chokingly angelic) - and Wonka is so flat-out odd and entertaining that I think the film succeeds smashingly.

Though I do wonder at both film versions' need to include some kind of affirming, positive, sentimental conclusion, that is a topic for another day. There are many more things I could say about the film - small snippets of humor or cleverness or oddness - and many I probably missed, but I think this is one film where I will leave it at a strong recommendation to see the film. If nothing else, it's food for thought on the Dahl adaptation front; at best, it's a wildly peculiar and intensely funny smart and clever film.


Blogger Michele said...

Ooh I'm insanely jealous that you've seen the Marvellous Mr Depp and this film already - and even more excited about seeing the film than I already was... Thanks !!

1:12 AM  
Blogger Michele said...

Well I've now seen the film, and can I just say "Awesome" ! It was even better than I'd hoped, from the snippets of discussion I'd seen on Child_Lit. and I laughed my socks off in places - most notably when WW walks into the doors of the glass elevator, rather than through them - sorry, I know it's rather obvious humour, but that to me was what made it so funny - this is supposed to be a film for children after all !

I heard some shrieks of horror from some of the smaller children in the audience when the puppets began burning - I thought that scene was a neat parody of the singing puppets scene from Shrek, and it actually gave me a few chuckles.

All in all a film I'd recommend heartily to anyone who's got a sense of fun and of the macabre...

6:48 AM  
Anonymous Jill said...

Hi Kerry, chiming in late on this one - just saw Charlie last night. As to the mechanization in the opening scene - I saw this as less narrative than cinematic, a "ooh, look what we can do with 3D effects!" type thing. It reminded me of the doors scene in Monsters Inc, where they're jumping from door to door in a huge 3D expanse of computer-generated space. But I can see your interpretation, too.

Thanks for the extensive thoughts on this!

10:55 AM  
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