CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
For the life of me, I can't figure out what director Tim Burton was trying to accomplish with Charlie & the Chocolate Factory that wasn't previously accomplished by Roald Dahl's book or the beloved 1971 film.
It's not a terrible movie by any means. There are some astonishing visual gags - I might never forget the scene of the nut-shucking squirrels taking their vengeance on Veruca Salt - and the art direction is often extraordinary; God knows there are always things worth looking at, sometimes just on the edges of the screen. Some of Burton's directorial decisions, too, are more than ticklish, such as his casting of the actor Deep Roy as all of the Oompa-Loompas, and his presentation of their poetic moralizing - taken from Dahl's original work - in a variety of upbeat musical styles with accompanying, comically appropriate choreography. Technically, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is impressive. There's just one problem: It isn't any fun.
When news of this new Charlie & the Chocolate Factory first broke last year, most everyone I knew was appalled, and it was clear that Burton's work was, as a de facto remake, going to face some tough scrutiny. Unlike our feelings about the original versions of War of the Worlds, The Longest Yard, or House of Wax, a lot of us had an instant "How dare they?" reaction to the idea of someone messing with Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, even if - or, for some, especially if - Tim Burton was at the helm. (It's important to remember that, for 34 years now, that movie is many children's introduction to the notion that a family movie can be not only really funny, but really scary.) The party line continued to be that Burton's version was going to be "more faithful to the spirit of Dahl" - which I think is Hollywood-ese for "rated PG" - and having seen the film, that might be true. But I feel compelled to ask: Why does this movie look exactly like Willy Wonka, albeit with a bigger budget?
Since they're both based on the same book, this shouldn't be much of a surprise; how many different ways are there to show the gleaming-white lab where Mike Teavee gets zapped? But lots of individual shots seem lifted from Willy Wonka here, along with long passages of dialogue, so the effect is like watching the original after a major CGI overhaul, as if George Lucas himself came in to digitize the movie and drain it of its humor. What, exactly, is Burton trying to prove here? That he's a better director than Mel Stuart? Like Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot version of Psycho, Burton's film often has the feel of a stunt, but it feels like a rather mean one that caters to a cynical, high-tech-happy audience; the wondrous visuals and cavernous sets seem to suggest, "This is what the original should have looked like."
Perhaps, but it sure wasn't supposed to sound like this. Beginning with his decision to cast Freddie Highmore as Charlie and David Kelly as Grandpa Joe - two marvelously naturalistic actors - Burton appears determined to scrape off much of Willy Wonka's sentimentality, which he has ably done. He has also gone too far in this direction. Now you're not connected with the characters at all. Again, it can be argued that this is truer to "the spirit of Dahl," but if we're not affected by Charlie's good-hearted acceptance of his lot in life, or don't feel like cheering when the bratty kids meet their fates, what's the point? When the monstrous tykes get what's coming to them, the reactions of the others range from mild concern to downright detachment; no one seems much bothered by things that should be making an audience, at least, giggle and shiver simultaneously. (Both the 1971 film and Dahl's book are more emotionally involving than Burton's endeavor.) Charlie & the Chocolate Factory suffers from a distressing lack of personality. The brats and their parents are so underplayed as to not be onscreen at all, and except for the magnetic Kelly, you aren't much amused by the actors who make up the Bucket household; Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham-Carter, with ridiculous fake teeth, play Charlie's parents, and aren't even given one good joke apiece.
And how is Johnny Depp? Predictably weird, yet - unpredictably - not weird enough. Like Burton, Depp does funny little things all throughout; Wonka's tossing away of Mr. Salt's business card is priceless, and his jubilant, childlike exclamation of "'Kay?" - as if seeking approval he knows he doesn't need - becomes more appealing every time you hear it. But he's nowhere near as funny as you hope he'll be - the lines he's saying in his head are, I'm guessing, infinitely more entertaining than the ones the script gives him - and for most of his role he shares the others' implacable deadpan; not only do you not know what the character is really thinking, but you don't much care. It's an unusual performance but not one that adds much to the movie; Gene Wilder's Wonka was far more sinister, and more amusing.
Perhaps it's unfair to spend so much time comparing Burton's opus to its 1971 forebear, but this work is such a blatant retread that it all but invites unfavorable comparison, and there isn't a single scene here that's more enjoyable than its counterpart in Willy Wonka. Not one. (Anyone who hasn't seen the original will probably have a fantastic time, but exactly how many people does that leave us with?) The film will probably make a bundle - the way all of this summer's uninspired remakes are making a bundle - but you have to wonder how many of its viewers are really going to enjoy it; for a story that celebrates the imagination, this Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, visual enchantments and all, displays very little of it.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE
By contrast, Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's animated works are overflowing with imagination. His latest, Howl's Moving Castle (now playing at the Brew & View), features many of those signature Miyazaki touches that can take your breath away; the interior of the city-sized, titular castle is so imperiously complex that you want to stare into it for hours, and wait 'til you see the character of Turnip-Head, a brilliant, and extremely literal-minded, re-thinking of The Wizard of Oz's Scarecrow. Miyazaki's movie is dazzlingly detailed and has a rich storyline, and it should be seen. I just wish the characters were more beguiling (it's telling that that scarecrow, the movie's most enjoyable figure, never speaks), especially when we're stuck with Billy Crystal as the movie's Kvetching Jewish Sidekick. (In a Miyakazi touch, he plays a fire.) Seriously, can't this tired stereotype be given a rest, especially in regards to Crystal, whose familiar vocal inflections haven't been funny for ages? You'd think you'd be safe from them in a Hayao Miyazaki movie. You'd think wrong.