My daughter was intrigued by the ads for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So I decided to strike while the iron’s hot.
I haven’t read the book to her yet, (we’re halfway through The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) or told her the story, nor has she seen the Gene Wilder version. But she managed to demonstrate her narrative literacy again when she whispered to me as Violet Beauregarde began to turn blue and inflate, “Are those guys [Oompa-Loompas] going to sing each time a kid does something bad?” and then about a minute later, “I think bad things are going to happen to all the kids. Except for Charlie.” Anyway, she liked it a lot.
Me? Well, see, when I was about eleven we had this dog. It was the dumbest dog we ever owned, and unfortunately was also a constant barker, with a very irritating bark. I got dispatched to obedience school (two of them!) with the dog. Both trainers pronounced the dog untrainable, and both of them appeared to be relentlessly cheery optimists otherwise. One finally in desperation suggested this special collar that would give the dog a mild shock when the dog barked.
That didn’t work either. My parents had some acquaintances who lived out on the high desert with lots and lots of land. They liked the dog and the breed and agreed to take her. Good thing too since our neighbor was about to sue us.
I bring this up because I’d fit Tim Burton with a shock collar like that one, designed to go off whenever he starts to do something terrifically stupid or miscalculated in a film that’s otherwise humming along just fine. Only I don’t think it would help him any more than it helped that dog.
The film is a really dead-on, faithful version of the book right up until Wonka walks out of the factory. Then strike one, Johnny Depp’s portrayal. Now I like Depp, enormously, but he screws the pooch this time. It’s just a miscued performance, and yes, whether he meant to or not, it has a whiff of Michael Jackson in it. Bad bad idea. Burton’s been crowing about how faithful he is to the book, but it’s hard to imagine anything more faithless than making Wonka a kind of boy-man aesthete suffering from arrested development. The key to Wonka is that he’s a misanthropist (like Dahl) who feels himself the last decent man in the world (with the important addition that he sees creativity and imagination as a key part of being decent). He’s delighted to be proved wrong by Charlie and Grandpa Joe. He’s eccentric, yes, but it’s the wise old version of eccentric–and Dahl’s has the capacity to care deeply about the few people who deserve it, which Depp’s Wonka doesn’t.
But that’s just strike one. There’s a lot of good swings here, so you’d think Burton might still hit it out of the park. But then he blows the game completely, at least for me, with a god-awful backstory for Wonka. Wonka’s estranged from his candy-hating dentist father and has to seek redemption through loving his father again.
I’ve never seen a filmmaker so capable of getting so many things right and then just colossally miscalculating with horrible plot ideas or stagings that rip the guts out of everything he’s done to that point in the film. I can only think of four films where he doesn’t blow it that way (Pee-Wee, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Nightmare Before Christmas).