Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

For two months I worked on the DVD for this film (should you ever buy it, I designed all the "Search for the Golden Ticket" games). While that doesn't make me biased in favor of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it definitely got me interested. I'm not sure if I would have otherwise gone to see it. But staring at dozens of stills from the film throughout May and June made me a little obsessed. Just before the film's release, I even read the Roald Dahl book on which it's based, as well as renting the 1971 adaptation, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, to compare and contrast.

To sum up, the book is an enjoyable enough litany of the excesses of spoiled children, shot through with Dahl's sharp wit and imagination. The 1971 movie, with the major exception of Gene Wilder's charismatic performance as Willy Wonka and Veruca Salt's showstopping number, is, well, lame. The kid who plays Charlie is a mopey whiner, the production values – even for the period – are abysmal, and there is precious little creativity on display. People who love this film are misled by their nostalgia.

But the reason we're here today is to discuss Tim Burton's take on Dahl's book. Priding itself as a more faithful adaptation than the Wilder movie, it succeeds to a point, but loses track along the way.

The first act, in which we spend time with little Charlie Bucket and his wretchedly poor family, is fully satisfying; Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) is the ideal Charlie: kindly, sensitive, sympathetic. The rest of his family is also perfectly cast; it's like seeing Dahl's vision come to life. As we're introduced to the four rotten children who will join Charlie on his tour of Wonka's chocolate factory, we see some modern updates to the characters (gum-chewing Violet Beauregard is now also a hyper-competitive athlete; Mike Teavee is more addicted to video games than to TV shows) even while some alterations from the '71 film remain (Augustus Gloop, given no nationality in the book, is once again German).

All is well and good – even the book's funny anecdote about Prince Pondicherry and his chocolate palace is included – until we get to the factory. Then Burton's gigantic $150 million budget announces itself, heralded by Danny Elfman's bombastic score, and Johnny Depp shows up to say, "Right – it's my movie now."

Depp, who has claimed that his Wonka was meant as a cross between Howard Hughes and Mr. Rogers, gets laughs for a while, but his shtick soon wears thin and, moreover, doesn't serve the story. More distracting still is the decision by Burton et al to "flesh out" Willy Wonka's character. Several flashbacks to Wonka's childhood as a stifled creative genius suffering under a priggish dentist father (Christopher Lee) are handled well, and may shine light on Burton's own bitter childhood memories, but they stop the story in its tracks.

Still, my main issue with the film is simply its bigness. It's all so expansive and loud and hyperactive that the fun little details of the interaction between kids, parents, and Wonka are swallowed by all those huge sets and whiz-bang effects. As a result, the movie is woefully short on charm. (Gene Wilder's final line in Willy Wonka has more genuine warmth and feeling than all two hours of Charlie put together.) That said, the limitations of 1971 cinema have given way to the eye-popping visual standards of 2005, and Charlie shines whenever the effects serve the story: The scenes with the squirrels in the nut room are reason enough to see the film, and each horrid child's violent expulsion from the factory is played out in the most deliciously wicked way. And I can't end this review without mentioning the hard work of deadpan actor Deep Roy as all of the knee-high Oompa Loompas. He's great, as are the imaginative song-and-dance numbers he performs in.