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2005-07-21 07:14:56 (link)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Few movies in recent memory have needed to justify their own existences more than the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” from director Tim Burton. The second major adaptation of Roald Dahl’s timeless novel, and a notional attempt to interpret it more faithfully than the beloved 1971 rendition starring Gene Wilder, the movie faces two layers of high expectations beyond the scrutiny facing ordinary summer blockbusters.

And setting out with a huge budget, creative vision, and a star in Johnny Depp that almost made even “Secret Window” seem like a good idea, the new “Chocolate Factory” very nearly succeeds. But somehow through all its creativity and good intentions, the movie falls flat. Delivered with a misguided spirit, it not only fails to live up to its literary and big-screen predecessors, but also fails to live up to its own devastatingly clear potential.

Like the novel, the movie follows Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland”), an impoverished young English boy whose life changes when he receives one of five golden tickets to enter the magical chocolate factory of the reclusive and enigmatic Willy Wonka (Depp). The first outsiders to enter in years, Charlie and his unscrupulous counterparts witness the bizarre secrets behind their favorite candies, while competing for a mystery prize and one-by-one befalling strange, calamitous, and musical exits.

Burton’s gifted eye certainly hasn’t dulled with time. Perhaps the director with the greatest command of stylized production design since Fritz Lang, Burton grafts his quirky visual brilliance onto each set and costume. But Burton has struggled in recent years with projects that needed more than to be seen through odd spectacles. “Big Fish” was a middling and over-stylized attempt that’s only memorable for its gorgeous ending, while his “Planet of the Apes” remake was an outright disaster. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” just sadly misses the point.

In the novel and first movie, the Wonka character sets the tone for the whole story: charismatic, eccentric, and twisted, but ultimately warm-hearted. The oddities were magic and so was Wonka. But in Burton’s rendition, the whole experience is ill-spirited in a new and unfortunate way. The magic is demented and cynical, the man is a nattering man-child too detached to inspire. The difference in spirit between the first Wonka movie and this one is the difference between oddball whimsy and mean, misguided lunacy.

The greatest indictment of the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is the way it treats the children. The story is supposed to treat the non-Charlie kids as unsavory cautionary tales about poor parenting, but it’s not supposed to genuinely hate them. Burton’s movie turns Mike Teavee from an insistent, know-it-all runt to a sociopathic genius. Meanwhile, Charlie is completely de-clawed.

The first movie’s climactic judgment of Charlie’s goodness was predicated on him misbehaving. But Burton might as well have put a halo over his head. Highmore’s earnest, wide-eyed goodness was heartwarming in “Neverland,” but in “Chocolate Factory,” it serves the film’s hopefully accidental message: Saintly kids will be rewarded, all others will be hideously disfigured in candy-themed ways.

All of which is unfortunate. The movie is tremendous in many ways. The sets, costumes, and production numbers are wonderfully conceived. Veruca Salt is played to a beautifully despicable tee by newcomer Julia Winter, and escorted out to a downright brilliant song performance. And Depp’s conviction and presence are as strong as ever.

But those sets always look overcast. The production numbers are poor-fitting tangents of spectacle. And Depp’s conviction is poured into a nearly unwatchable performance—Wonka’s supposed to be an odd guy, not an alien.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is dazzling, creative, compelling, entertaining, and intermittently stunning. It’s just not a good movie.

by Amos Posner


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