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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Missi Pyle, James Fox, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee, Adam Godley, Franziska Troegner, Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, Blair Dunlop, Liz Smith, Eileen Essell, David Morris, Nitin Ganata and Shelley Conn.

Screenplay by John August.

Directed by Tim Burton.

Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures.  102 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

It’s never easy to update a beloved story.  Even harder when you have to compete with not only one, but two iconic versions of the same tale.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first a classic children’s book written by Roald Dahl.  Then in 1971, it was filmed with Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and became a family favorite.

So Tim Burton and his preferred star, Johnny Depp, had big shoes to fill for just considering the idea.  Of course, neither of them have ever been known for their timid natures — if anyone could pull it off, it would seem they’d be the most likely team in modern Hollywood that could do it.

Burton is able to capture the look and the feel of the story splendidly — it is a brilliant explosion of color and motion and whimsy.  The sets are visually stimulating and relentlessly imaginative.

Oddly, the one slight misfire here is Depp’s performance as Willie Wonka.  He deserves great credit for not just aping Wilder’s take of the role, in fact his Wonka is nearly unrecognizable to the earlier work.  It’s an interesting, well thought-out take on the role.  You can’t fault Depp for being afraid to experiment.  It’s just that the experiment doesn’t always work as well as you’d like.

Depp plays Wonka as an out-of-touch, dismissive man — uncomfortable with other people and at the same time yet rather desperate for a human connection.  He’s lived alone too long.  He doesn’t know how to function in society anymore.  This odd mixture of snobbishness and neediness makes for a slightly uncomfortable mix.  Add to that a look that is out of touch with the times too (it is based on late Rolling Stone Brian Jones, but occasionally feels uncomfortably like Michael Jackson) and a strangely affected speaking tone (taken on from kid’s TV hosts) and Willie Wonka is a really odd duck.

It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, or even make it a bad movie.  It just feels a little miscalculated in a film that is working so well in other ways.  This is added to by giving Willie a backstory — as a child he is banished by his tyrannical father (Christopher Lee), a dentist who detests candy.  (Finally, a film where the bad guy is a dentist!)  In an odd way, it’s sort of a letdown to know what Willie Wonka’s motivations and causes are.  Willie Wonka always seemed a force of nature.  He acted like he did just because that was who he was.  Knowing he was an unhappy kid who became a candy baron as a slap at his unfeeling father makes Willie seem too human and pathetic.

Of course, Burton was trying to get back to the original book.  (He was quoted as being rather dismissive of the first movie.)  Burton and Depp have created a whimsical and lovely story.  If it’s slightly imperfect, that’s just the way that life is.  (7/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005  All rights reserved. Posted: July 16, 2005.

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