Which was better, “the one with Gene Wilder” or “the one with Johnny Depp?”
The answer to your first question is: No, it’s not as good as the Gene Wilder version.
Yes, I know, we were supposed to pretend like that isn’t the first thing on all our mind’s. It’d be rude, after all, given all the Rove-ian talking points Warner Bros. has been streaming out since the project was announced: “It’s not a remake, it’s a second adaptation,” “this one is closer to the book,” etc, etc. But really, it’s silly to try and fake it. Just about everyone has seen the 1970s adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, and those who haven’t are aware of it regardless. It’s a classic, instantly recognizable, and that’s that.
Gene Wilder is as linked to Willy Wonka as Walt Disney, Judy Garland and Peter Jackson are to “Snow White,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Lord of The Rings,” respectively, and for good or ill no amount of publicity or spin can alter that. The mass audience going to see this new adaptation from Tim Burton is taking it’s collective memories of the prior version with it, and nothing can change that. And therefore I feel no degree of poor sportsmanship or anything else in preceeding my actual review with this initial impression: Irregardless of other merits, this is nor as good or memorable a movie as it’s predecessor.
Now then, to the actual review, which will contain MINOR SPOILERS:
One of the most frequently-named defendants in the “too many remakes” bruhaha of Summer 2005 has finally arrived, now bearing the added burdern (from a studio perspective) of following the “slump-busting” of last weekend. It doesn’t really matter what the reviews or even what the actual earnings of Tim Burton’s latest offering are, what will be talked up is whether or not it continues the “pulling out of the slump” upswing in ticket sales started off by “The Fantastic Four.”
We’ve all heard the story, read the original Roald Dahl book and/or seen the first movie based on it starring Gene Wilder. This new version doesn’t deviate too far from the central premise: Eccentric candy-tycoon Willy Wonka hides Golden Tickets in candy bars which will permit five children (and one adult each) to tour his mysterious factory. The winners include four “bad” kids, each defined by an individually-obnoxious trait, and one “good” kid in dirt-poor Charlie Bucket. During the course of the tour, the bad kids get bumped off one by one, each in an individually-ironic manner.
As a book, “Charlie” has always proved problematic for adaptation. It’s structure is curiously episodic, it’s tinged with a hint of vengeful moralism (often playing like Dahl’s narrative compendium of “types of children I greatly dislike and what should be done to them”) and it “stars” a main character who’s very goodness renders him often eclipsed by the more interestingly-rendered “bad” kids and the outrageous Willy Wonka himself. In other words, it’s difficult to turn this material into a movie.
The 70s version “solved” most of these issues by adding a new beat to the climax, giving Charlie and Grampa Joe a memorable moment of indiscretion and outright admitting that Wonka was the real star, even going so far as to retitle the peice “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.” This new film tries the same tricks in new ways: Charlie (Freddie Highmore) gets a more subtley-shaded persona (reflexively practical and selfless), and Wonka himself (Johnny Depp) is given an both origin-story that ties him to the larger world of the story and a radically new character arc that gives him as many “lessons to learn” as the “bad” kids.
I won’t spoil the “surprise” of the new Wonka origin-story, save to say that this being a Tim Burton film you may be unsurprised to learn it involves unresolved father-issues, exaggerated magic-realism and a cameo by a venerable star of classic horror movies. I WILL say that, while I enjoy this addition to the story, it does pretty significant damaged to the “closer to the book” spin and also imposes an odd, truncated-feeling “fourth act” onto the film that throws off the pace quite a bit. It also raises interesting questions that aren’t paid off, such as implications that Wonka oddball business style is in part responsible for the seeming destitution of the town surrounding his factory and Charlie Bucket’s family in particular.
Most of this ends up working, though, because the cast is strong. Highmore (last seen in “Finding Neverland” ALSO as a child who inspires Johnny Depp) makes a great Charlie and seems comfortable amid the weird-is-normal motif of a Tim Burton-imagined factory. Depp finds a strange, semi-sinister edge to Wonka, bolstered by the film’s heavy intimation that THIS Wonka has been planning these events from the start and is possibly even more unbalanced than he acts. Good work from these two.
The other four children aren’t really given much to work with, as for some reason the film seems more concerned with the reactions of their respective parents, but the young actors aquit themselves well. What’s of interest is how the types have been “updated” for a modern telling: Violet Beauregard retains the gum-chewing that Dahl found so objectionable but is more displayed as a manipulative, overcompetitive perfectionist raised by a mother who’s more of the same. Veruca Salt is once-again a blueblooded spoiled-brat, and gluttonus Augustus Gloop remains a gleefully cruel joke at the expense of the German nation.
The only one of the kids who doesn’t quite work is Mike Teevee, which becomes problematic as he gets a good deal of screentime as a kind of evil direct-counterpoint to Charlie. In the book, Mike was a bulletin board for Dahl’s dislike of the newly-rising “TV generation,” and in the Wilder film he was the ultimate cowboy-costumed Ugly American. Here, the film just can’t figure out what to do with him or what he’s even supposed to represent: He begins reimagined as a video-game junkie, an update which doesn’t play as clever as it was probably meant to but is at least a decent start.
But then, Mike’s “sign of badness” switches to cold calculation as we’re informed he only won by figuring out a mathematical formula for ticket-placement and doesn’t even like candy. THEN it becomes cynicism, as his father wistfully comments on technology making kids grow up too fast. Once inside the factory, he switches to “hyper-aggressive” and finally earns his “accidental” pillorying for daring to approach Wonka’s inventions from a scientific angle. Favoring hard science over whimsy is, apparently, enough to get your textbook kicked out of the Kansas public school system, but is it really as “factory removal”-worthy as the original Mike’s TV-inspired unpleasantness? I’m not so sure.
The Mike Teevee problem is compounded by an insistance on adhering to the books for the post-accident songs sung by the Oompa Loompas (each one played, hillariously so, by digitally-duplicated little-person actor Deep Roy.) The songs, reimagined as parodies of music styles by composer Danny Elfman, are a little hard to understand for one thing, and for another Mike’s song chastises him for a lack of intellect even as we’re told that he sports entirely TOO MUCH intellect for his own good.
Overall, I’d say this new “Charlie” works more often than it doesn’t, and it’s visually impressive as one expects out of Tim Burton. It could use more length to breathe, some down-time between the factory segments, and the added fourth-act just feels like a strange quickie-sequel instead of part of the film-proper.
So I’d say go see it, I had fun with it, but it’s no classic. Johnny Depp turns in a fine, wacky performance, yes… but five years from now, the “definative” film image of Willy Wonka will still be Gene Wilder and his orange-skinned dwarfs, not Depp and an army of (admittedly uber-talented) Deep Roys. But in it’s own right, judged as much on it’s own merits as much as is possible, this is a decent movie.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
Oh, and the answer to your second question is: No, I don’t think he’s supposed to be Michael Jackson.