Is Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a Bad Nut?

by Karen Gsteiger

I'm not entirely sure why Roald Dahl was displeased with Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). I have always found it to be an enchanting cinematic treasure, thanks mostly to Gene Wilder's genius performance as the titular eccentric candymaker. What made his performance genius, you might ask? Wilder created a perfect combination of endearing and menacing, so that when I saw the film as a child, I wanted to give Willy Wonka a big hug and run away with him to his factory. Now when I watch it as an adult, I appreciate Wilder's dark sarcasm and sly creepiness. A perfect example is the moment when Wonka is singing "Pure Imagination," which is just a lovely song sang by Wilder with a dreamy poignancy. While he's singing this song, he's sharply whipping his cane in front of the children and inexplicably plucks a single hair from the head of an annoyed Mike Teevee. Genius!

When I heard that Johnny Depp was going to be playing Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's remake, I was thrilled. I mean, if you have to make a remake at all of this film, the title role had better be trusted to Johnny Depp. When I first saw the movie poster with Johnny Depp in a purple top hat at the theater, I was so entranced that I walked right into the men's washroom. I had heard that it was going to be closer to the source material, and I was fine with that. Not only would it be pointless to make a shot-for-shot copy of the original (and I'm talking to you, Gus van Sant), but I also felt that it would be nice if the remake could bring something new to the factory.

Then I saw the trailer and quickly grew alarmed. The "Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka, Willy Wonka" theme song, taken out of context, embedded itself in my brain. And not in a good way. The colors were sickeningly sweet, the children looked plastic, and yes, Depp was sounding pretty Michael Jackson-esque. Remembering the Planet of the Apes debacle, I asked myself, oh Tim, what have you done? Still, I determined that I would see the film as soon as possible after its release, and I was encouraged by positive early reviews.

I'm happy to say that I was not disappointed by the remake. Sure, it's not the original, but if you walk into the theater with an open mind, there's a lot to love here: the whimsical beginning sequence depicting the manufacturing of Wonka's chocolate bars; Charlie Bucket's loving family in their poorly constructed home; the sharp and witty performances of the child actors; the simultaneously side-splitting and disturbing blank stare of Mrs. Beauregarde (Missi Pyle looking as though she walked out of the "Black Hole Sun" video); and Johnny Depp's hilarious reflection on cannibalism, among other oddities.

I have long thought that child performances can make or break a film, and happily, Charlie and his cohorts perform quite commendably, especially Freddie Highmore as Charlie, Jordan Fry (like a disturbing mini-Christopher Walken) as Mike Teevee, and Annasophia Robb as the über-competitive Violet Beauregarde. Julia Winters put forth her best effort as Veruca Salt, but unfortunately for her, it's impossible to top Julie Dawn Cole's tour de force performance in the original.

Johnny Depp's approach to his role odd and admirably risky, and he manages to pull it off. It's hard for me to analyze his performance objectively, since I'm so enamored of Gene Wilder in the same role. Although I found Depp to be quite unnerving at times (especially his voice), he often left me guffawing in my seat. If he's going to take his inspiration from rock stars, though, as he did with Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, I kind of wish that he had been just a little more Marilyn Manson and a little less MJ.

Not that there aren't flaws. Willy Wonka's backstory...completely unnecessary, in my opinion. The special effects cloning of a single actor to play all of the Oompah Loompahs, also unnecessary, and probably much more expensive than hiring many different and distinctive dwarfs/little people. Danny Elfman's songs are certainly catchy, and the production values are high on the Oompah Loompah numbers, but they are also busy, and the words are often difficult to make out. Which is a shame because, you know, Oompah Loompahs have wisdom to impart.

On the other hand, at no point does the film leave one with the angry sense of "What the hell?" that one felt at the end of Planet of the Apes. And for that, we can all be thankful. Plus, I feel that the time is right for today's kids to become acquainted with the inventful, if spiteful, Mr. Wonka. (I say this after encountering many children recently who run riot in public while their anxious parents halfheartedly threaten them with a "time out.") Roald Dahl was not afraid to point out that most children are the id personified and that they need loving boundaries established by their parents. And if those parents weren't willing to provide those boundaries, then Wonka was ready to intervene in a particularly mischievous way.

I don't know that with time I will love and cherish this version of Wonka the way I do the original. It wasn't a travesty, though, and for a Hollywood remake these days, that's quite the accomplishment.