If you don’t know the story of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, then you’ve either a) never had a childhood or b) been living under a rock for your natural life. Given that the former is a scientific impossibility and the latter would mean you’re more likely getting a suntan than reading this, then let’s assume that you know the ins and outs of Golden Tickets, naughty children and glass elevators. After all, both Roald Dahl’s original story and the 1976 movie version starring Gene Wilder have been a favourite of youngsters for many years and still remain popular, even when faced with the competition of a certain bespectacled wizard.
So, when it was announced that Tim Burton was bringing Dahl’s most famous work to the screen, there were plenty of people rubbing their hands with glee. Certainly, Burton has always seemed to share an affinity with Dahl: Burton’s early films such as the short Frankenweenie (1984) and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) were children’s fantasies imbued with the same kind of sinister and twisted temperament that made the novels of Dahl such a delight for youngsters. Even though he has lost some of his touch (witness the massive misfire that was Planet Of The Apes), if anyone could do Dahl justice it would be Burton.
And he’s partly succeeded. Whilst it’s great to see that Burton restores much of the dark heart that was removed for the 1976 adaptation, it seems that the iconic nature of his source material has slightly overwhelmed him. An attempt to add a back-story to Wonka (he now has a fanatical Dentist father played, in an admittedly nice cameo, by Christopher Lee) seems forced. The variety of wonders in the factory, including the River of Chocolate and the amazing sights seen whilst the glass elevator goes on its epic journey, do provide sparks of visual inventiveness. Yet it still seems rather flat, as if everything was filler as we move from set-piece to set-piece.
However, a little aside to commend the genius of the Oompa Loompas (and I never thought I’d be writing that sentence in my career). Thanks to CGI they are all played by one actor (the wonderfully monikered Deep Roy) and work as a brilliantly creepy Greek Chorus, exuberantly singing the macabre ditties penned by Dahl.
Another big plus is Johnny Depp as the vaguely unhinged Wonka. Much more unlikable than Gene Wilder’s interpretation of the character, Depp is all teeth and starey eyes as he portrays a man who patently can’t stand children – and other people for that matter. Indeed, his presence saves the film from becoming a sickly mess: Freddy Highmore does fine as Charlie but he’s so unassuming he’s in danger of becoming invisible. The same goes for the brace of obnoxious children: they play their caricatures with glee, but they’re never anything more than set-ups for a terrible – yet morally justified – fate.
Of course, all this might read like the grumblings of someone who could never experience Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the same way as I did when I was young. And you’d most likely be correct. Nothing compares to reading Dahl’s magic prose as a five year old or even seeing the orange Oompa Loompas’ in the 1976 version for the first time. Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is fine entertainment for all the family, and will have the little ones squealing with joy (and squealing for copious amounts of chocolate when you leave the cinema). But it isn’t the grand fable that cineastes know Burton is capable of bringing to the screen – and that Dahl’s words deserve.