Director Tim Burton has come a long way since his first job as an animator for Disney in the early 1980's. He made several animated shorts, none of which were deemed suitable for children - an early indication of Burton's dark outlook. However, his hard work and talent did not go unnoticed. His subsequent directorial work on Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) cemented his role as an experimental and visionary director/producer. Nobody else, therefore, was surely more suitable to adapt Dahl's much-loved novel, and nobody else was surely daring enough to attempt a re-make of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, directed by Mel Stuart), that enduring classic starring Gene Wilder as Wonka.
Burton's repeated use of Depp in previous films (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow to name just three) indicated him to be an obvious and, it could be argued, perfect choice to cast as Wonka. Depp is by far the best thing about this film. His character's whole persona - the costume and body language, the tone of his voice, his pithy lines delivered in a contemptuous and yet charming manner, are all presented in such a way to add up to a well deserved challenge to Wilder's crown. But does he steal it? I'd say he doesn't. For someone that grew up with Roald Dahl's novels and film adaptations, Wilder IS Wonka. Trying to ignore my obvious bias, I believe Depp does put up a good fight, and perhaps if the parents of the four terrible children had shown more spark, or been actors of a higher calibre, his comic moments would have had much more impact.
Burton's other muse, Helena Bonham Carter, is mis-cast as Charlie's mother. Her lines are delivered distractedly and with the air of someone very aware of her status in the film industry. Thankfully her role is quite minor and doesn't impact negatively upon the film. Freddie Highmore is fairly insipid, yet not offensive in his role of Charlie. The same description can be applied to David Kelley, who plays his Grandpa Joe. With the exception of Augustus Gloop, whose role is comparatively minor, the four ticket-winning children do not live up to expectations or standards set in the '71 Mel Stuart version. They simply serve to mildly irritate and disappoint, particularly Veruca and Violet. But I doubt anyone could match Julie Dawn Cole, the original Veruca.
A certain amount of furore has surrounded Deep Roy, the 4ft 4" tall actor who plays every single one of Wonka's all-singing, all-dancing Oompa Loompas. He also plays Wonka's therapist and, in a tongue-in-cheek moment, appears briefly on the closing sequence where he is revealed to be the narrator. The effects used to re-produce Roy as every single Oompa-Loompa I believe detract from the film. When viewing scenes, surely it's preferable to be absorbed and involved than to be distracted by special effects and wondering 'how/why did they do that?' Additionally, Roy's scenes are the only ones to feature music - there is no Wonka or Grandpa Joe breaking into song and dance in this adaptation. All we get here are the Oompa-Loompa's didactic lyrics, which unfortunately are drowned out by below-par sound editing.
In an unprecedented move, Burton and screenwriter James August have given Wonka a history. Christopher Lee, who is sadly under-used in this film, plays his father, and we get to find out exactly why Wonka is such an enigma. I won't reveal the outcome, short of saying it's pretty unsatisfying and takes away Wonka's mystery - the very thing that makes him appealing. Claims have been made that this adaptation follows Dahl's novel much more closely than the 1971 version, of which it does - everything is followed almost to the letter. Unfortunately, the Wonka/father storyline clearly undermines any attempt the film has made to stay true to Dahl's novel - should Dahl had wished there to be a father figure, he would have included that in his book. However, certain artistic license is always taken when adapting books and plays to the big screen, and this creativity is needed to keep images and story lines fresh and to prevent any static grounding.
As regards the imagery of the film, well, it's a Burton film and true to form we aren't disappointed. Typically, we enter and leave the film during gentle snow-fall. The poor Buckets' house leans pitifully to one side and almost makes you shiver when Charlie climbs into bed underneath a gaping whole in the roof. Colour is suitably hued down apart from certain scenes in the factory where the vibrant colours bring the songs and sets to life - the Chocolate Room and the Boat Ride come alive, and the Television Room almost blinds. The only fault I could find, and it is minor, is that at certain points of the Chocolate Room scene, the chocolate river where Augustus Gloop meets his untimely suction looks more like brown water than creamy chocolate. Apart from the afore-mentioned poor sound editing of the featured songs, audio here is of a top standard. Sound effects are clear, no dialogue is gone unheard and the musical score is in keeping with the tone of the film.
Verdict - It's easy to be over-picky when comparing a film not only to a novel, but also to an earlier, much loved and highly-established film adaptation. However, faults notwithstanding, this is watchable fare that should appeal to all ages. Is it a classic? No.
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