Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

(Tim Burton, USA, 2005)


Ever since his sparkling feature debut with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton’s films have conscientiously followed two tracks. First track is his predilection for making films about obsessed men, visionaries who long to build and live within a world built from their deepest fantasies. Second track – fittingly for someone who began in (and often returns to) animation – is his taste for completely artificial, man-made environments, toyland-type spaces where nature, although painstakingly mimicked, never intrudes.

Whether or not he grasped it at the outset, Burton’s sensibility was tailor-made for our postmodern times. His love for artificial kitsch, enjoyable in itself, was also taken as an ironic comment on a prefab pop culture; and his identification with male obsessives could be taken as ambiguous, potentially critical. Voila – from film to film, Burton serves up relentless cheesiness as well as a Dark Side, innocent fun as well as sophisticated commentary. It is a combo he is unlikely to relinquish any time soon.

This is why Burton’s version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can be watched as both a jolly movie for kids and a chilling allegory of Michael Jackson on his Neverland ranch; as both a celebration of childish fantasy and a corrosive satire of pop culture and its malign effects.

Burton is famous for his penchant for fairy tales and myths of all kinds. His generosity of spirit leads him to regard Planet of the Apes or The Headless Horseman as modern myths on par with the Greek tragedies; and to take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a fairy tale with as much moral worth and seriousness as those penned by the Grimms or La Fontaine. So this film, even more than the book, becomes a fable about teaching, disciplining and rewarding children.

The film – beyond some wonderful flashbacks and digressions – is stuck with Dahl’s simple, countdown plot. Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) invites the five special, young winners of a competition to tour his wonderland-style chocolate-making factory, with the promise of a special reward for one of them at the end.

Charlie (Freddie Highmore) is, from the start, the obviously Good, worthy child. All the others – obese Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), over-achieving Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), whining Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) and hyperactive Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry) – are holy terrors, and Burton delights in making them as grotesque as possible.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory presents a fascinating case study in page-to-screen adaptation. While sticking quite closely to most of the details of Dahl’s much-loved novel (as the 1971 version starring Gene Wilder did not), Burton and his now-regular screenwriter John August embellish and expand events in ingenious ways. This is particularly so in relation to the frankly sadistic punishments meted out to the misbehaving children. In Dahl’s original, these kids simply leap into trouble; here, Wonka delays attempts to stop or save them – and the immediate song-and-dance commentaries offered on their fates by the Oompa Loompas (all played by a single actor, Deep Roy) are offered as further evidence of the master’s sinister, Dr Mabuse-like control.

For all his remarkable talent as a stylist, Burton is not a cerebral artist. Like David Lynch, he describes his process of creation as dredging material from his unconsciousness and "putting those images out there" for all to see. As a result, he is rarely in complete control of the meanings and associations of these images. Only one of his films, the underrated Mars Attacks! (1996), managed to keep its political line straight.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starts showing signs of incoherence whenever, for example, Burton sets his animator’s imagination to the task of depicting the many images of workers (men, women, Oompa Loompas and squirrels) that underpin Dahl’s story. An automated assembly line fires, in Burton, a grand fantasia of digital aesthetics: one worker is multiplied into one hundred or one thousand, thanks to special effects technology. It is an awesome sight. But does Burton really intend his film to be a merry apologia for advanced, soulless, industrial capitalism?

The dream of building artificial worlds – which is, in a sense, every filmmaker’s dream, especially Burton’s – also courts a rather damaging paradox. The Spielberg-style sentimentality that occasionally creeps into Burton’s work (particularly the dismal Big Fish [2003]) always depends on the potential of his heroes to swap their fake, alienated environment for a real, natural one. Yet his films are frequently circular (Todd Solondz might call them palindromes): even idyllic happiness depends, ultimately, on expert engineering and canny special effects.

Perhaps, when all is said and one, Burton simply cannot resist including one more flip joke. His wild sense of humour is certainly infectious, whatever one makes of the deeper content of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The visual design of the film, on every level, is extraordinary, married perfectly to Danny Elfman’s music. And Depp, giving an all-stops-out masterclass in weirdness, is riveting.

MORE Burton: Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

© Adrian Martin August 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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