Woof, Woof! Zap!

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).

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7 Responses to Woof, Woof! Zap!

  1. Endie says:

    Tim Burton’s ability to take the wrong turning at a late junction is, indeed, spectacular (I still shudder at the memory of the penguins in Batman Returns). But aren’t you being a little rough on Burton? Beetle Juice, ofr instance had minor annoyances, but nothing jarring given the flavour of the movie as a whole.

    And since I’m not an American, I feel little compunction about saying that I liked what he did with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In fact, I think this is an example of the exact opposite tendency that you describe. Washington Irving’s version is unfilmable, and the suggestion that Brom Bones was the real horseman would be tricky to incorporate and reveal without leaving the audience thinking “and he would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids”.

    I know that Andrew Walker did a lot of the story revision, rather than Burton, but Burton could easily have stuck more penguins in there at the end, and didn’t.

  2. LordFanny says:

    Well yeah, the backstory sucks and Johnny Depp is way creepy, but you’re blaming the director for problems in the screenplay. I know this is a minor quibble (and that Burton hasn’t really ever displayed any specific sense of story to make us think otherwise) but everything you seem to dislike about the movie can be attributed to John August and not Our Tim. It’s the director’s job to bring the words on the page to life, which I think Burton did admirably. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not an auteur film.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The director has enormous say over what does and does not get filmed: the screenplay is not handed to him as something he’s not allowed to touch. In this case, the Wonka backstory is such a classic Burtonian misfire that I think his fingerprints are all over it, and the buck stops at his door.

    Depp’s creepiness may be at least somewhat Depp’s responsibility, but it’s also pretty consistent with Burton’s take on most things. I can’t think of a single person in any of his films who is like Wonka as he ought to be–eccentric, passionate, misanthropically empathetic, but also unmistakeably adult and a complete person. You get that wrong and you’ve gotten the whole thing wrong. I’ve seen quite a few critics note that the truly bizarre thing about the Burton version is that it’s not Wonka who rewards Charlie’s unappreciated virtues, but Charlie who salvages Wonka but teaching him about family. That’s a colossal misunderstanding of the source material, to no good or entertaining end.

    I would agree that at least The Legend of Sleepy Hollow didn’t have a horrible misfire in the plot or staging. I just found it a rather flat and boring film, that’s all, but in a way that’s better than something that’s very appealing that then goes badly wrong.

  4. slolernr says:

    Not such much about Burton, but about Charlie, specifically,

    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).

    Yes: but also no. Dahl renders Wonka a highly ambivalent figure, and even lets Mike Teavee score a few points off him, pointing out how he’s implicated in inculcating precisely the vices he deplores. This doesn’t mean Wonka isn’t a stand-in for Dahl; lord knows Dahl almost certainly felt ambivalent about himself. But it complicates the portrayal, and points Wonka’s misanthropy inwards — or perhaps his self-critique is the basis of his misanthropy.

    It’s also worth noting that Wonka outsourced his factory jobs to overseas slave-labor.

  5. abstractart says:

    The thing is that, for all the difficulty of articulating exactly what Dahl’s Wonka was like, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka captured Wonka’s personality almost *perfectly*, and for all the things about the Wilder version that seem a bit corny today it’s still miles superior to the Burton film in its faithfulness to the atmosphere of the book. If Willy Wonka has to be explained, the song “The Candyman” explains who he is and why he does what he does far better than any contrived backstory could.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I didn’t like Wilder’s Wonka that much as a kid, but I like it much better now, with a few exceptions–I don’t care for the whole 70s psychedelic freak-out after they head into the tunnel, with accompanying Young-Frankensteinesque overacting from Wilder.

  7. josner says:

    Wow, I had almost exactly the same reaction to the film as you did — though expressed with far less erudition and fluency. My review is here.

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