Thursday, July 21, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [movie, ****]

Warning: this review contains spoilers about the new movie, which you will not know from reading the book.

I'm not one of those people who worships the original movie. I liked it a lot; for years I would watch everything with Gene Wilder because I loved seeing Willy Wonka. That movie was the first opportunity I had to learn about special effects. I knew all the kids were actors, but I was convinced that Augustus really did go up from the pipe into the fudge room, and Violet really turned blew and blew up, etc. I asked my mom how they could do all those terrible things to the children, and she tried to come up with a plausible technical explanation for each one. That was cool, but I have no idea how I would begin explaining the new computer generated effects to my kid.

The Gene Wilder movie was good but not great. I found the music catchy but annoying. After I read the book, I was disappointed at many of the deviations, particularly the mundane nature of the Great Glass Elevator. But also, although Gene Wilder was adorable, he didn't quite capture the spirit of the character for me. He was just too darn tranquil most of the time. Violet is chewing gum, and book Wonka will scream "Stop! Spit it out!" while wringing his hands, but movie Wonka is practically yawning while muttering the same lines in a bored manner. Dahl's Wonka was easily excitable; Gene Wilder was relaxed and seemed really in control.

To Johnny Depp's credit, he captured the manic personality of Wonka much better, but he also added something totally different that I never would have expected. Clearly what Depp and Burton were thinking was, "Here's a guy who has spent 20 years secluded in a factory, with nobody to talk to except these freaky little guys. Genius or not, he's bound to be a little bit socially awkward. Actually Johnny Depp plays him as a tremendous nerd, who reads lines off of cue cards when he's lost for words, and can't even remember the names of the children. Throughout the movie he's always gesturing ineffectually at the kids saying "Uh, little girl, little girl..."

Now that doesn't fit with the image of Wonka that I had either. But it is a very interesting take that actually makes sense... AND he manages to combine it with that frantic energy that Gene Wilder didn't have.

As I've read, both movies sharply deviate from the book for the same key reason: The book has no moral center for Charlie. Basically he's not as atrocious as the other four, so he wins by default. Also he is assumed loveable because he's poor. In the Gene Wilder movie, they threw in a subplot with Slugworth tempting all the kids to spy for him, and Charlie refuses, proving his goodness. In the Johnny Depp version, Wonka tells Charlie he can only inherit the factory if he leaves his family. Charlie refuses, proving his goodness.

In order to get to that point, the movie throws in an extra-Dahlian subplot about Wonka's childhood with his father. It's okay. It is logically consistent with the Burton/Depp version of Wonka. I'm not sure it's necessary, and the flashbacks feel kind of crammed in there.

The real problem I had was that when Wonka demands that Charlie leaves his family... well... I just didn't buy it. In the book, the three of them crash through the ceiling of Charlie's house Wonka says "Come on, let's go! Wheel the bed in the elevator and let's head for the factory!" This new version makes Wonka more of a jerk, and I just didn't want him to be. It also forces a resolution with the "Wonka's dad" subplot, which I didn't think was all that important.

The real problem with the ending is that it doesn't jibe with the sequel. I've done some thinking about "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator," and I concluded that it just wouldn't make a very good movie. But let me fantasize, okay? Let's pretend that we can look forward to a Tim Burton version of Elevator, how does the ending of his movie jibe with the beginning of the next book? It really doesn't quite. In the beginning of the first book, Wonka has an element of surprise on his side. The other three grandparents are like "Who IS this nut job?" That doesn't really work if Wonka has already spent several days eating dinner and making nice with the family and learning what families are all about.

FYI, here's the second book in a nutshell: Wonka takes the family up in space with his elevator, where they are chased by shape-changing aliens and shot at by the president. The grandparents (except grandpa Joe) bicker constantly. Once they are back down to earth, Wonka tells them about his invention which makes people younger. They overdose on the substance, two of them turn into babies and the third takes so much that she disappears completely. Charlie and Wonka then take a terrifying trip down to "Minus-land", deep below the factory, to save her from negative age and horrible negative monsters.

Again, I can't see that plot making a good movie, but damn, wouldn't Tim Burton make it look cool?

Which reminds me to comment on the visual aspects. Very nice. Charlie's house was a brilliant design, loved it. Chocolate river and waterfall, miles beyond the original movie. Elevator, better than I imagined it. Special effects on the kids? Well, weird, and even more disturbing than the Wilder version. Actually less convincing in some ways, because they just LOOK so computerized. I'm mainly thinking of Violet here, although they show a parting shot of Mike Teavee after he was stretched, and that also looks silly.

Overall, I have to say that this was well worth seeing. It's just a bit better than the first movie, unless you consider the first movie perfect, in which case -- well, you're wrong -- but okay, you won't like the new movie more.

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