Friday, August 12, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

This year has been quite a year in terms of cinema-going. I can confidently say that I've seen more movies on the silver screen this year than in any other year, hell, even the last three years combined.

The latest Big Thing to come our way is, of course, the Tim Burton adaptation of Roald Dahl's quirky children's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Directed by Tim Burton, a director who always inserts a macabre bent into his movies, starring the ever-talented Johnny Depp, renowned for his paradoxially realistic depictions of non-realistic characters, as the eccentric Willy Wonka, Chirstopher Lee, erstwhile vampire and wizard, as his dentist daddy Wilbur Wonka (just for that impossibly disturbing Burton bent),, Freddie Highmore, er, talented child actor, as the good-natured but gullible Charlie Bucket. That's about it for the big names, unless you want to count Deep Roy, the Oompa-Loompa(s), both, as shall be seen, male and female. (Incidentally Deep Roy also played Droopy McCool in Return of the Jedi that oh, so cast him in the international glamour spotlight.)

Anyway. To those who've never actually read the book, it goes something like this. Man sets up gigantic chocolate factory which produces all sorts of wonderful, amazing and also impossible candies of all sorts, including ice-cream that doesn't melt and a chocolate palace that does. Man realizes that competitors have sent in spies to steal all his trade secrets and clearly doesn't know a thing about copyright. Man fires all his workers and closes doors to the public, instituting a local economic slump in the process which threatens his own profitability and forces him to outsource. During the entire process man grows inexplicably rich and keeps a bad haircut. Also develops a macabre sense of humour and could probably do with seeing a psychologist and a professional barber.

One day man, during said haircut, realizes that he's growing old. Man then conceives an ingenious solution that never takes into account the fact that not everybody who eats chocolate is a child. (Aforementioned solution involves the placement of five coupons placed in random chocolate bars that have been circulated all around the western hemisphere, and the child who gets the coupon gets to visit the aforementioned Factory where he/she will be subjected to close scrutiny for his/her adequacy for corporate management.) As mentioned, chocolates with said coupons never leave the Western nations because of a random logistical error.

Said coupons are found one by one by children of such extreme dispositions that one wonders how they ever survived birth. One should also note that this does not take into account Tim Burton's, uh, alterations to the script. In an event of extreme statistical improbability (which is yet another reason for us not to study the subject) the last coupon is found by a poor boy who lives in a squatter fitted with electrical lighting and plumbing. This poor boy secures the last coupon on the eve of the invitation into the factory, in the very town that the Chocolate Factory stands in. Talk about logistical errors.

The rest of the tale is a relatively generic take on child abuse and ends with an attempted insurance fraud. (what else can punching two big holes in your factory roof be?) In the movie's case the story ends with a visit to the dentist, a cliched reconciliation with disturbing consequences, and the inexplicable disappearance of a certain house.

The best word, then, to describe Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is 'movie'. Or 'book'. In this case I'd pick 'book' because it, at least, was a wholesome tale of the vindication of morality, and a celebration of stereotypes. The movie is hardly what I'd call wholesome. Or even sane, at times. Doubtless we've all come to grips with that disturbing vision of the evil clown, with nobody under the makeup and the outfit. The movie kind of does that to the book, gives it a macabre twist that transforms it from a harmless children's tale to a darker, more disturbing story that doubtless pulls in a bit more money.

This twist is epitomized by the irascible Johnny Depp, known for playing the eccentric, but good at not doing so nonetheless (Inspector Ichabod in Sleepy Hollow, for example), who subvert's Dahl's classic to bring it more in line with Burton's idea of a Burton film. Which basically translates to a dash of dark humour and the sense of a stylized reality. Depp, as Wonka, lends this very quality. His characterization of Willy Wonka, said man who owns the chocolate factory, is brought to the extreme, so much so that in the end Wonka is transformed from an eccentric but ultimately benign and well-meaning father-figure to a similarly eccentric but slightly perverse nutcase who hangs on to his sanity only with great effort. Depp pulls this off with his hair, extremely pale skin, quirky outfit and million-dollar smile that you sometimes see on the faces of Palpatine and deranged clowns. To top it all of, Burton had scriptwriters insert an unsettling element into the film - Wonka's backstory, where, he, as a child, had an overbearing and pathologically inclined dentist father who treats candy as the devil and forces the young Wonka to wear ridiculous braces. (One wonders why he ever let him out for Hallow'een then.) Hmm. And we wonder why he got into the chocolate business.

Depp acts Wonka with his usual excessive eccentric alacrity. His version of Wonka is plagued with an unhealthy fascination with burning puppets, a phobia of saying the word "parent", a perverse enjoyment in watching children and their parents suffer, and a curious penchant for mindblock when addressing moderate collections of people. All neatly covered by his disturbing backstory (which, allegedly, reflects Burton's own childhood.).

That's the crux of what many see wrong with the movie, especially those who actually read the book as tiny youngsters, laughing at all the parts when the bad children get hauled away. Depp (and possibly Mr. Burton by connection) just doesn't get what Wonka was intended to be like. Or maybe, the rest of the Dahl fanbase don't get that Wonka's supposed to be an eccentric nutter with one foot in the asylum. That's the trouble with cultural subjectivity; belief is just a matter of opinions, which is probably why democracy came about in the first place. As for myself, I'm ultimately ambivalent about the whole issue of Depp-as-Willy, I see merits in Burton's portrayal of his, but at the same time can conceive of problems trying to integrate that screwed-up performance with my innate vision of Dahl's Willy Wonka. (Which is the benign version.)

But I never have that problem with movies. I watch adaptations to get a better conception of the fictional world that the book is set in, rooted in a tangible medley of colours, shapes and sounds, instead of the vague impressions the swirl around in one's mind's eye when reading the book. The impressions might be your own, since all authors are dead, but they are tantalizingly, unsatisfyingly, vague. So I watch adaptations as they come. But ultimately I still accept the booksas the prime sources of imaginative stimulation in whatever world they might have been set in, since they offer 1. The authentic experience, and 2. They've got the timeline right.

So the book is tantamount to reality, a movie akin to its dramatization. Ironic. As a whole, I don't have any problems with the movie, not even with the unsettling Burtonesque twist to it, but I do have problems with two issues. One, Wonka's backstory, and two, the acting. (Other than Depp's, of course.)

Wonka's backstory, to put it short, is ludicrous. I'm not against the idea of adding (or, heavens forbid, even subtracting), stuff from movies where the move is prudent. But the idea of a paranoid-obsessive dentist father as the origin of Wonka's eccentrism and love of candy (and of the subsequent inexplicable reunion of said father and son at the end-which was probably some sort of hypnotic procedure - its hard to tell where Burton's concerned.) is plainly farcial. Maybe it was intended for a little grotesque humour, but the concept itself feels like a cheap addon to the original story, the likes of which Burton, to his credit, adhered to faithfully and conscientiously. Would it that he had cut Wonka's backstory out, the movie would have been that much better, and still keeping the obligatory dose of Burton's style in it. You just can't escape the Hand of Depp.

The second big problem I have with the movie was the acting, or rather, the confines of the script which led to the absymal performances of the parents of the ill-fated children. During every one of the scenes where their doted-on children are led to terrible fates these parents, hardly acting like the over-proud and over-protective parents they should have been, stand like docile animals and watch with confusion on their faces as their babies are creatively disposed of before their eyes. Maybe emitting a cry or two now and then. It's the script, really, and some bad acting on the actor's part, and it really took out the carthartic bite out of watching the fulfillment of their inexorable, untimely ends.

On the bright side, the book was quite faitfully adhered to, down to the songs and the hair toffee (and hair cream.) Almost every single quirky thing from the book was included, with few exceptions. The humour was genuinely, cleanly funny at times, though most of it was spent on Burton's gruesome antics. Atmospherically, the movie was good; the chocolate factory was beautiful, and the Buckets acted quite well. They projected a sense of decency that comes with poverty. The movie ended with a minor unexpected twist and was heartwarming enough, even though it was straight after a, shall we say, rather contrived reunion.

All in all, adequate, sometimes plagued with contrivance, hyperbole and gruesome humour, and Wonka's characterization is dubiously done at best, and at worst. (Depends on how you see it, don't it?) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a worthwhile deal if you've actually read the books, but will probably come off as slightly boring for adults who haven't.

"I shall say no more." -translated ending of the emperor Kangxi's valedictory edict, 1722

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