May 23 2013 1:30pm

Another Journey Into Chocolate: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005 film)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005 FilmDespite 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 FactoryStill 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.

Stefan Jones
1. Stefan Jones
Your analysis largely parallels mine.

Burton . . . yeesh, how do I put this? At the same time he expertly weaves fantasies, he seems compelled to indulge in cynicism. If he did a film about unicorns he'd devote half the screen time to their glowing dung and their sexual hang-ups.

That sort of thing would be fine for a satire forgrown-ups, but in an adaptation of a beloved children's classic, it seems offputting and weird. A betrayal, when you get right down to it.

I'm old enough to have seen the 1971 film in the theater. Even as a kid I could see that it was a low-budget quicky that took liberties (Slugworth, fizzy lifting drinks), but it was also respected the intent of the book. There was just enough darkness mixed in (callous Wonka, scary boat ride) to keep the sweetness from becoming cloying.

The new movie, while visually brilliant and a closer adaptation of the story, didn't seem to respect the fantasy. Thus, burning puppets and a psychologically damaged Willy and cynical grown-up explanations for things.
Jack Flynn
2. JackofMidworld
Said flashbacks tell the story of Wonka’s sad life: a childhood under the well-meaning but overwhelming, almost sadistic control of Saruman.

...may be the best thing I've read today. Also enjoyed both versions of the movie.
Stefan Jones
3. wizard clip
You've nailed the main reason I've largely given up on Burton's films. While I appreciate his imaginative powers, his central characters--from Edward Scissorhands to Batman to Ichabod Crane and on and on-- are almost always unimaginative variations on the same motif: the damaged child in an adult body.
Stefan Jones
4. Ragnarredbeard
#3, aren't we all children in adult bodies? And aren't we all damaged to varying degrees?
Peter Ahlstrom
5. PeterAhlstrom
After the movie came out, I heard a number of people say it got Willy Wonka's character right. Absolutely not. This can be seen in a line of dialogue from the book that is flipped 180° toward the end of the movie. Charlie asks Wonka if his grandparents can come along. In the book, Wonka says "Of course they can!" In the movie, Wonka says "Of course they can't!" This not only shows that the movie Wonka is not the guy in the book, it shows that Tim Burton knew this and was on purpose making Wonka not match his characterization in the book.
Jonathan Baker
6. thanbo
I didn't like the fizzy lifting drinks bit in the old movie. Charlie in the book manages to stay out of trouble, and thus inherits the factory. In the 1971 movie, though, Charlie comes off as no better at following sensible rules than the other kids, yet he still "wins". How? By not getting killed by the exhaust fan?
Stefan Jones
7. philolexian
#4: No. And yes.

Some people are childlike their whole lives long, some people are trapped in eternal adolescence, and some people seem to become about 53 years old starting at the age of ten, and stay that way their whole lives long. Which is my way of (pardon my cynicism) saying that while I won't begrudge others, I don't necessarily buy the we are all children thesis.

That said, we *are* all damanged in our own ways, as experience builds up that patina of dings and dents that define character.

The Tim Burton dilemma seems to be that he avoids the notion of character as being the result of experience, leading to too many of his (recent) lead characters being far too one-note.
Stefan Jones
8. wizard clip
@#4: I suppose many are, but I hesitate to speak for 7,000,000,000+ souls. But even if it's true, every human being doesn't spend his/her entire life obsessessed with it. Some do, and certainly there should be stories that address this reality (and boy are there ever). But some people figure out how to deal with childhood traumas fairly early on and actually get on with growing up. Remember when movies featured characters who were already grown up? This includes movies aimed at children because, just maybe, it's good for kids to see adults acting like adults--compassionate, understanding, competent adults-- and not overgrown children.

Burton's an imaginative stylist, but as far as characterization goes, he's revealed himself to be a one trick pony.
Stefan Jones
9. mirana
Both movies are terrifying to me. But then, so were Dahl's books...
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
@Stefan Jones -- I think you've nailed something there: a respect for the fantasy. It's kinda odd given that the chief concern of the Dahl estate was respecting the fantasy, but in many ways, you're right -- of all the film adaptations, this is the only one that satirizes Dahl rather than using Dahl's already existing satire and just going with the magic.

@JackofMidworld - Heh. Thanks!

@wizard clip -- To be fair, his Batman also had a lot of cool toys. Though his second Batman film just doesn't make a lot of sense.

@Ragnarredbeard -- I don't know. I think that observation is certainly true of much of the geek population. But I've also met some people who are clearly, completely adults. I'm not in that category, but I know it exists.

@PeterAhlstrom -- Yes, part of the point of the book is that Charlie loves his parents and grandparents unreservedly and wants them with him. In fact all the kids keep their parents with them, and Wonka gets that. In this film, when Wonka doesn't get that, it's....odd.

@thanbo -- Yeah, that always bugged me too.

@mirana -- I think Dahl's books could easily be reclassifed as children's horror.
Stefan Jones
11. Evan H.
Depp's Wonka didn't strike me as merely "a damaged child in an adult body", but as a pedophile. The characterization was based, with ham-fisted obviousness, on Michael Jackson (I've heard that Depp denied this, but if so, Depp was lying). It destroys the movie; the idea of Charlie living in the same building with this man renders the happy ending horrifying.

Wonka is supposed to be childlike, but not "damaged"; he's a trickster-god who straddles the line between child and adult worlds. Gene Wilder understood that and played the character accordingly -- as if, at all times, he were the only person in the room who understood the joke. Depp and Burton made him into a figure of nauseating pity, someone we recognize as a victim but who should nevertheless be kept far away from children. Utter fail.
Stefan Jones
12. Sybylla
One of the things I hated about this version was the treatment of Mike Teavee: one of his major "unappealing" characteristics in it is that he's a know-it-all. I would have felt a lot better if his obnoxiousness was specifically called out as unattractive, but instead it felt to me like Burton was presenting the character's knowledge as bad. Watching it, I got the impression that Burton was saying, "Look at this little twerp, thinking he's so smart. He should just shut up about all these facts, stop questioning the grown-ups, and accept what Willy Wonka tells him at face value." It really, really bothered me.
Stefan Jones
13. Jennifer Schillig
Mira and Thanbo, from what I understand, the Slugworth/Fizzy Lifting Drinks subplot was inserted into the 1971 movie because the makers felt (perhaps with justification) that Charlie was too passive in the novel. He didn't actively prove his goodness, he was simply the last kid standing.

So yes, he and Grandpa Joe got into some mischief. But when they were called on it (and I really love Gene Wilder's performance in that scene; you get the feeling he wouldn't have been as angry with the other kids because he EXPECTED better of Charlie), Charlie had the chance to walk out and give the Gobstopper to "Slugworth" out of spite. But he realized that he had done wrong and deserved his punishment. If the other kids had been in his place, they probably wouldn't have done that.

Anyway, did Roald Dahl ever say exactly WHAT his problem was with the 1971 movie? I've got a book on the making of it, and it claims he was fine with the script changes for the reasons I mentioned above. There's even a shot of him on the Chocolate Room set, laughing with the director. So apparently up to a certain point he was okay with it. What made him turn against it?

As for this one...I tried, I did try to like it. But ultimately it just didn't wash for me. The shoehorned-in father subplot, for example. The Slugworth plot in the 1971 movie may not have been in the book, but it felt much more natural and logical than this version's subplot, which just seemed to be there to tack on a "family is important" moral.

Plus...watching the 1971 version, I am struck by just how REAL everyone's performance is, even the kids. The scenes outside the factory seem completely natural and lifelike, especially the relationship between Charlie and Grandpa Joe. That makes the scenes inside the factory seem even more fantastical. In this version...EVERYTHING was Burtoned up, inside and outside the factory.

(Also, I kind of like the idea of Charlie's mother being a widow. It makes sense in the light of Wonka needing a "son" of sorts, and Charlie needing a father.)

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