It's all about Willie

When I first heard that Tim Burton was going to make a new film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", with Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka, I thought this I gotta see. Not only did I love all three previous collaborations between the two (Ed Wood especially), but Tim Burton's quirky imagination, sense of the gothic and affinity for outsides and weirdos seemed perfectly suited to the book, and aside from the fact that I'll see anything with Johnny Depp in it, I was interested in what he'd do with the character.

Somehow though, between reviews that complained his Willie Wonka was too much like Michael Jackson, others that called the movie just plain unsatisfying, and being in France at the time of its release, I managed not to see it. Until yesterday, that is, when I found out that sometimes you should just ignore reviews and go with your gut instinct, because this film is a near-perfect visualisation of the book.

I think what's different between me and say, MaryAnn Johanssen on this count, is that I had read the book about twenty times by the time I saw the 1971 version, and that, to be honest, I didn't really like that movie. Gene Wilder was pretty ok, alright, I'll admit, he was a good Willie Wonka, but the rest? It was just too different from the book, and I didn't see the point of what they added. To MaryAnn, however, the 1971 movie is the benchmark, and I can see why this movie could disappoint if you were expecting a retread of that film: it forgets that film ever existed, and goes back to the book. While watching, my family and I agreed that somehow it felt like we'd seen it before, and this has nothing to do with the 1971 film (I think I'm the only one who has seen it) but everything with how visual the book already was, and how closely the film sticks to it.

I think what makes Roald Dahl and Tim Burton fit so well together here is their sense of exaggeration. They know that sometimes things need to be over-the-top to be truthful. Dahl's bratty kids were so awful they could barely exist, and their punishments grotesque, but the conceit worked because of this. Like the chocolate factory in the title, everything was oversize, the imagination taking just one step further than you would have expected, and Burton understands this like no other. The house the Buckets live in is not just crooked, it's leaning over so far it's a wonder it hasn't falled over, and even the door is so slanted that the characters have to bend to enter. When a chocolate palace collapses, it does so completely and violently, giant columns of chocolate falling down. Burton undertands that it is necessary for everything to be so big, larger-than-life, he understands that the boat they use to travel down the chocolate river is made from candy and it looks it.

In fact, the only parts in which the film kind of fails are the ones that were added. Granted, the idea of Willie Wonka having a dentist father is a good one, and having the father played by Christopher Lee is a stroke of genius, but aside from this the backstory's just a little too neat psychologically. Dahl's Wonka didn't need a reason to be strange and arbitrary, didn't need a reason to have isolated himself from the world. He was just weird that way. Depp's Wonka however - and I blame this solely on the script - cannot say the word "parents", and a neat resolution of his complexes is in store for him at the end. The end doesn't work: Dahl knew the importance of a swift happy ending without much thought of the consequences, in fact, when he did write about the consequences, in his follow-up book "the Glass Elevator", he failed miserably, but Burton wanted more than just saying "and they all lived happily ever after" and leaving it at that, and it's too bad.

One last thing I would like to comment on is the Michael Jackson thing. I think that so many people saw Michael Jackson in Depp's performance has to do with how they viewed the film, with the trial at that point fresh in everybody's mind, because I looked for direct evidence and it just isn't there. Yes, Wonka is effeminate, and yes, he lives in his own fantasy world, but he hates children! Violet hugs him and he's horrified, just as Wonka in the book would have been. He is mean and he does not need a reason for it. He lures children into his Neverland not for his own purposes, but because he has no choice, and he has no trouble dispatching them one by one.
It might be that what confuses people is that they are used to looking for connections with reality. I often do it too, and often with reason: I'm almost sure the references to 9/11 in War of the Worlds was intentional, and it's not hard to find the criticism on forcefully bringing peace in Serenity. Tim Burton is a different creature from most directors, however, because he doesn't care much about reality. His mind is celluloid, and I don't think he intended any real world parallels with this film. With Tim Burton, it's all about the pretty pictures, it's about celebrating weirdo's, not about any contemporary allusions. Even other films do not interest him that much, because they are in reality. He only has one major reference to another film (well, films, but it revolves around one in particular) and it is, appropriately, in the Mike Teavee sequence.

If there is a message to this film, it is the same as the one in the book: it's a celebration of imagination. That's why Dahl opposes TV so much: not because there aren't worthwhile programs being made, but because it "makes the brain lazy". Mike Teavee is a smart kid, more so in the film than in the book, even, he figures out the "system" to find his bar (although I found the reference to the Nikkei index kind of ridiculous), he immediately sees why Wonka's idea to send a chocolate bar through the TV would not work, he is the voice of reality, in a way, seeing right through the "pointlessness" of Wonka's entreprise. Wonka's answer? Like in the book, he simply ignored this "voice of reality", tells Mike he's mumbling and that he can't understand a word he's saying. I believe both Dahl and Burton are trying to tell us this way that we shouldn't always restrict ourselves to reality, and that imagination is vital. I couldn't agree more, and I think the movie is worth seeing if only just for this: it shows just what is possible if you refuse to be restricted by reality.

There's only one other director who might fit Dahl just as well. It's Wes Anderson, of course, and he is currently working on an animated film based on... "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". I'm looking forward to it. Maybe these movies will be enough to make us forget the saccharine horror that was "Matilda".

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