Despite getting a writer’s credit for Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl by all accounts hated the final film, to the point where he was reluctant to allow any of his books to be filmed at all. Aware of this, his family hesitated to allow the book to be filmed a second time unless they could retain creative control. This, naturally, delayed matters still further. It was not until several years after Dahl’s death that film producers and the Dahl family could agree on hiring director Tim Burton, whose previous work seemed perfectly matched to Dahl’s grotesque visions. It took Burton another few years to develop the film, now back to its original title, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Still more delays followed: British child labor laws limited the hours that the children could legally be on set; set design turned out to be a nightmare, and the crew had to figure out how to transform forty squirrels into movie stars. (And if you are wondering how to do this, the answer is, Squirrel Training Camp.) The final result was not released until 2005.
The decision to use Real Squirrels was but one of many factors that Burton and his creative team, armed with far more money to spend, used to make a film that would be, they declared, closer to the original book than the earlier film had been. In some ways, they succeeded magnificently—perhaps too magnificently. In two major ways, they failed.
Did you know that this was the last film Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s production company worked on before their split? I didn’t. And with that pretty much entirely irrelevant aside, let’s plunge into further discussion!
Burton’s movie begins on a fast moving, almost manic, yet dark note, as the credits zip round and round but never leap into brilliant color. When the camera finally stops trying to tell us who everyone is, the lens settles—only briefly, this is Burton—on a decidedly grim world: shadowy, and grey, with a house—Charlie’s—in such bad shape that it has almost tipped over, and the bed his four grandparents share has a very squashed look. To help out viewers, the four grandparents have been given slightly different personalities: Grandpa Joe is, well, Grandpa Joe, a former employee of Wonka, an optimistic storyteller; Grandpa George is a cynic with a romantic soul; Grandma Josephine kindly and loving; and Grandma Georgina pretty much out of it. Charlie’s two parents are pretty much directly from the book.
As are other things: the bits with the Golden Tickets adhere much more closely to the book, although Mike Teevee is given a slightly more contemporary twist with an obsession for video games insteand of television. This still keeps him a thoroughly bratty little kid, so it works. And presumably to add suspense, the whole “faked ticket” bit is repeated, and Charlie only buys one candy bar, not two. Charlie also considers selling his ticket, generating an inspired rant from Grandpa George about how freaking ordinary money is. (It’s particularly inspired since in an earlier scene he’s complaining about the low quality of the cabbage soup.) Perhaps aware that later sections of the film would inspire video games and possible theme park rides, the film also adds a brief scene mocking certain Disney moments. I laughed.
After that, however, the film slides back to following the book relatively closely: the chocolate river surrounded by the edible garden; Augustus Gloop getting sucked into the chocolate pipes; the rushing trip down the chocolate river in the pink candy boat; Violet getting turned into a CGI blueberry; Veruca Salt attacked by squirrels; Mike Teevee becoming the first person transported by television before becoming thoroughly stretched out. Each incident is accompanied by an Oompa Loompa song, this time with lyrics taken directly from the book (vocals done by composer Danny Elfman and a lot of sound trickery).
Unfortunately, this closeness to the book creates another problem: the Oompa-Loompas. As I noted earlier, Dahl’s original Oompa-Loompas were not exactly, shall we say, politically correct. The 1971 film had sidestepped these issues by making the Oompa-Loompas orange and green, which, however disturbing to small viewers like me at least avoided certain more questionable racial issues. Here, the Oompa-Loompas, including an administrator named Doris, are all played by a single person, Indian actor Deep Roy. This allows for several good visual jokes, but also creates a somewhat cringeworthy scene where the white Wonka heads to the jungle to find the small person of color Oompa-Loompa and, after some jungle dances, takes him back to the factory, paying him and his multiple clones only in food. Wonka assures us that the Oompa-Loompas are great workers, and from everything we see this is true, but the allusions to slavery become even stronger here than they were in the book.
This only emphasizes one other critical element, not omitted by Burton: the negative effects Mr. Wonka has had on the local economy. It’s not just that Wonka fired Grandpa Joe (sniffle) because of things other workers had done, although that’s pretty bad. But Wonka is also directly responsible for increasing the desire and need for toothpaste (all that candy) which leads directly to the loss of Mr. Bucket’s job. The original book does not connect the increased sales of chocolate with the loss of Mr. Bucket’s toothpaste factory job; the movie makes this connection explicitly. This in turn makes Mr. Wonka even more difficult to like.
Burton attempts to mitigate this somewhat with one major deviation from the book, something that Wonka himself correctly notes as “having a flashback.”
Said flashbacks tell the story of Wonka’s sad life: a childhood under the well-meaning but overwhelming, almost sadistic control of Saruman. I mean, his father, played by Christopher Lee. Elder Wonka is a dentist, terrified of cavities and other tooth problems, and has placed his son into a nasty brace that covers most of the poor kid’s face. And he takes away all of the candy his son gets on Halloween.
It’s awful. Well, perhaps not the candy bit. I mean, on the rare times I did manage to go trick or treating, I had to bring my candy home to get inspected too (my mother thought it could be laced with cyanide and didn’t think I was restrained enough to look for telltale holes in the packaging.) But she let me keep most of it. And I can see why a parent would want to remove all candy from a child’s diet, if only to evade the resulting sugar high and sugar crash. But the braces serve little purpose other than to humiliate little Wonka and isolate him from his friends. The camera lingers on the braces to emphasize this. The film also suggests that Elder Wonka has been cruel in many other ways as well: sadistic, manipulative, emotionally abusive. It’s hardly a surprise when little Wonka runs away and rebels in the most flagrant way imaginable: by becoming the world’s greatest candy manufacturer.
Given that this is a Hollywood film, it’s also hardly a surprise to discover that Elder Wonka tracks the progress of his candied son, collecting every single article and bit of news about him, displaying many of them on the wall. Or that this all leads to a sentimental reunion where Elder Wonka is able to recognize now grown-up little Wonka’s teeth, and an awkward hug showing us that Everything Is All Right.
Except that everything isn’t all right. Much of the movie, after all, has focused on how bad the results of bad parenting can be for children and parents alike—although the flip-flopping Violet seems happy enough as she leaves, and I expect Augustus and Veruca will be just fine once they are home and cleaned up. Indeed the experience hardly seems to have changed Veruca at all. Mr. Wonka, however, has been so damaged by his father that years later he still has difficulty socializing. The film wants us to deplore the parents of the awful children who enter the factory—but forgive the parent of the man who threw thousands of people out of work (leading directly to the financial despair and poverty of the Buckets—not just once, but twice), keeps little clone Oompa-Loompas, and seems to delight in terrorizing children. Erk.
More problematically, this storyline, however conceived to be awkward and even grotesque, adds a note of sentimentality that does not exist in Roald Dahl’s work. It is not that Dahl couldn’t conceive of or write about tight family bonds: Danny the Champion of the World and The Witches both feature strong, supportive family relationships. Charlie Bucket, in the book and both films, has a strong, supportive relationship with his parents and all four of his grandparents. (Well, maybe a little less with one grandmother in this film, but she does seem to love him very much whatever her mental state.) But for Dahl, these relationships generally spring up in situations where, for whatever reason, the protagonist is socially isolated. Danny lives very much outside of town, the narrator of The Witches has just lost his parents, and so on. These relationships are presented without sentimentality, part of why they feel so real—and so well done. And these relationships have little to no forgiveness or redemption. The children forgive their parents out of love, because, well, they are their parents. Not in an attempt to heal childhood wounds or reestablish a family connection.
And on a small note, every time I saw Christopher Lee I couldn’t help but wish he’d been cast as Grandpa Joe instead; he would have been both terribly wrong and terribly right for the part. Sigh.
But the other problem is that this plotline transforms Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka into a damaged child in an adult body. This brings up several issues, including, quite frankly, the problem that I cannot buy that this Wonka was ever competent enough to build a factory in the first place—create amazing candy, certainly, but build and manage a factory, not so much. But this also, oddly enough, makes Depp’s Wonka less terrifying than Wilder’s Wonka, because Wilder’s Wonka is an adult, proving that yes, indeed, adults can be cruel to children. Very cruel. Depp’s performance lacks that touch.
Since I’ve started comparing the two films, I also couldn’t help but notice how the comparison highlights one major weakness of contemporary films: CGI, and one major strength of contemporary films: CGI. As I noted, the 1971 film had to substitute geese for squirrels in the scene where Veruca Salt gets her comeuppance, in part because squirrels were too difficult to train (a point only emphasized in the added features on the BluRay disc), in part because the producers had no other easy way to fake squirrels. The 2005 film spent the money to train squirrels, but was also able to add CGI squirrels to a few seconds of film frame where using real squirrels would have been dangerous to the actress and her stunt double. That ability in turn led to a sequence that is much stronger and far more terrifying than the scene with the geese in the 1971 film.
At the same time, the decision to use CGI instead of a blow-up costume in the Violet-turns-into-a-blueberry scene greatly weakens that bit. As I mentioned, the blueberry scene in the 1971 film terrified me and a generation of other children precisely because it was so real—that was a real little girl in a giant blueberry suit getting rolled round and round and slamming into things. I freaked. Others freaked. In the 2005 film, this is a not-real little computer image getting rolled round and round while little computer clones dance on top of her. I’m not saying it isn’t disturbing, just that it’s a lot less terrifying than the scene in the 1971 film—not to mention the scene with the very real squirrels in this same film.
CGI, done well, can of course be amazing, and often it looks “more real” than some of the puppets and models used in other films. But even at its best—and 2005 was not “ best”—it still often retains a very unreal feeling, especially when used to transform people, instead of to fill in backgrounds for bluescreened shots. As demonstrated here. Though, to be fair, CGI can certainly be much easier on the actors: the girl who played Violet in the 1971 film left acting entirely; the girl playing Violet in the 2005 film is now in The Carrie Diaries. So it’s not all bad, just unreal.
Quibbles aside, the film remains highly entertaining, and if Depp doesn’t quite match the terror of Wilder’s performance, he manages his own demented touch, not to mention some, um, decidedly adult implications (helped by the videos.) It’s disturbingly fun. Watch it with chocolate.
Mari Ness refuses to confirm or deny a reported extensive trip to a Godiva chocolatier shortly after her initial viewing of this film. She lives in central Florida.