The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Written by Neon Kelly.

Photo from the article There is rarely much pleasure to be had in ruthlessly criticising a film designed for children - the whole process often feels akin to stamping on a handmade toy. The sacred nature of children and our innate desire to protect them are two factors which can easily override our standard habits of judgment. Few people would happily tear apart books like Spot the Dog or Meg & Mog for lacking decent plots - such criticism seems both redundant and ludicrous. The same impulses tend to apply to children's cinema: provided that a given film proves itself to be more than a cynical exercise in marketing, the final product will be largely impervious to attack. What does it matter if Scooby Doo is wholly reliant on fart gags - the kids like it, so it serves its purpose.

As the main review states, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (CatCF) is far from being a bad film: Johnny Depp’s performance is a lot of fun, the cinematography is striking - impressively so at times - and the younger members of the cast seem to enjoy themselves, even if they are largely ignored by the film itself. The real problem lies in the fact that the film fails to assert its identity: for a family piece CatCF does a miserable job of catering to a young audience. Apart from the lack of attention given to Charlie, a lot of the best jokes (such as the flag montage, revealing young Wonka is simply walking past a museum exhibit) will simply fly over the heads of child viewers. There’s certainly nothing wrong with accrediting child audiences with intelligence - filmmakers talk down to kids far too often, and misguidedly so - but it’s still important for a comedy film to consider its audience. At the screening I attended, the two biggest laughs by far came from Wonka’s collisions with the near-invisible door of the glass elevator. These slapstick moments are well done but they simply fail to compensate for the lack of good jokes aimed at a young level.

CatCF shirks its duties as a child entertainment, yet it’s also true that the film is fairly malnourished for a Tim Burton piece. For all their striking looks, Burton’s projects have always been focused on telling a good story - an ideal celebrated in 2004’s Big Fish. Perhaps the most surprising thing about CatCF is that it fails to spin a ripping yarn. Charlie Bucket is the emotional heart of Roald Dahl’s original text. He’s no superhero, just a normal little boy whose strength lies in the fact that he is a nice person. The 1971 film may have its flaws, but it at least understood the importance of Charlie’s virtue. At the climax of Mel Stuart’s version, Charlie is harshly rejected by Wonka after the end of the tour. Charlie, being in possession of a much-sought-after Everlasting Gobstopper, has an opportunity to screw over Wonka by going to one of his rivals. Instead, he returns the sweet and walks away - at which point the eccentric host’s hostility is revealed to be a ruse.

Let us compare this act with Wonka’s behaviour in Burton’s film. At the end of the trip, Wonka offers Charlie ownership of the entire factory - a choice, he openly admits, that he makes by default (compare this with Gene Wilder’s / Dahl’s Wonka, both of whom state that they always knew Charlie to be the destined winner). After happily accepting, Charlie changes his mind because he refuses to desert his family. An enraged Wonka then ejects him from the Factory.

The contrast is clear: in the first situation Wonka submits Charlie to the ultimate test of character, one which he passes because of his aforementioned virtue. In the latter setup, Charlie is thrown out off the premises and has his dream snatched away because Wonka is a social cripple who was previously mistreated by his father. Not only does this change of plot turn Wonka into a freak - as opposed to a moral, benevolent figure - but it completely pulls the narrative focus back onto Wonka, as if the film hadn’t done this enough already. The endgame of the story then relies upon the eccentric owner hastily learning the value of family and becoming reunited with Charlie - a finale which, even if it were a good idea, relies upon the largely-neglected relationship between the two characters.

At this point we should perhaps start to question why the “Wonka’s Childhood” subplot is even in the film. It is inevitable - and indeed often necessary - that some change will take place to a story when it shifts medium form book to screen, but a change as major as this is somewhat difficult to accept in light of the film’s much-vaunted claim to authenticity. A screenwriter’s job in adapting a text is not to produce an entirely loyal translation, but rather to capture the essence of an original source. It seems as though John August was genuinely trying to do this for Dahl’s book, but after keeping so close with small details like the descriptions of the sweets and their effects it is rather depressing that his final script cares so little for its boy hero.

An additional misfire of “authenticity” - though not the fault of the screenplay - is the handling of the film’s musical numbers. After opting to make use of the original lyrics from the novel, the songs are arranged in a variety of musical styles that reference bygone pop acts such as the Mamas & Papas and Kiss - another joke aimed solely for the parents. These interludes are produced such that the vocals are generally inaudible over the rest of the melodies. This kind of dropped-ball is sadly a good representation of CatCF as a whole - an energetic mess with good intentions that don’t quite work out.

As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s not a pleasant job writing nasty things about family films; it is equally galling for me personally to criticise the work of Tim Burton, a director whom I greatly admire. As I write this I feel weary in advance, mindful of the many people who will vehemently disagree with my opinion on this film. CatCF has its merits, but I really feel that it pales in comparison with the likes of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1994). Still, from what I have seen most children quite like it - and perhaps that is what counts.

This Alternate Take was published on September 10, 2005.

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