“I’m sorry. I was having a flashback.”
It’s Johnny Depp, swathed in rich purple fabrics and lavender latex gloves, that spouts this line but the audience can utter it along with him. 1971’s Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is such a deeply ingrained part of a generation’s childhood that wading into the same dark cocoa waters is fraught with toothy dangers. All the more impressive then that director Tim Burton has forged something nearly as scrumdiddlyumptious as Mel Stuart’s original.
Set in a perilously gray, Dickensian cityscape, it’s instantly understandable why a poor, crazy sweet boy like Charlie Bucket could build his dreams around Technicolor candies and their mysterious maker. The best part of a fantasy is the absence of any realistic entanglements like say a troubled past with one’s dentist father or a steady diet of only cabbage soup. Where Burton immediately veers away from the first cinematic interpretation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel is in giving his characters, Wonka included, a well developed inner life, replete with prickly flashbacks and Freudian symbolism.
By most reports, Dahl didn’t much care for kids. There’s a venomous bite to the fates that befall the spoiled brats that accompany the angelic Charlie into the factory. Each, through dumb luck or elaborate machination, holds a Golden Ticket which allows them and a guest to spend a day being guided through Wonka’s wacky wonderland, which was sealed off years before due to intense industrial espionage. A man can only have his gobstobber stolen so many times before he shuts the world out.
Much has been said about Depp’s similarity to equally fantastical recluse Michael Jackson. All one can say about that is hogwash. The reportedly pedophiliac Jackson was all about charming children, drawing them closer in a misguided attempt at love. Johnny’s Wonka barely wants the carpet crawlers at arm’s length. He’s just an oversized kid himself, which pops up in the snotty, wounded retorts he offers when his ideas are questioned, always ready to let you know he is rubber and you are glue.
What makes this so successful ARE the differences. It’s impossible to tackle such a project and not have it viewed through the lens of Gene Wilder, Anthony Newley’s songs and the original’s sometimes marshmallow warmth. Burton doesn’t avoid stepping through that edible garden but he’s only passing through on the way to his own lysergic whirligig interpretation, which includes a puppet hospital & burn ward, implications of Oompa Loompa cloning and a genuine distaste for Western Culture’s driven, impatient vulgarity.
Perhaps most significantly, Burton suggests that Wonka is partially responsible for the Bucket family’s poverty. It’s Willie’s factory closing and use of what amounts to tribal slave labor that puts Grandpa Joe out of work – beginning a cycle of crap jobs and unemployed patches that plague the plucky, soot smeared Buckets. Charlie’s father is let go from his job as a toothpaste cap screwer because the increased sales of Wonka treats, and the increased dentist visits that come with them, which gives his employers enough money to modernize and replace Dad with a machine.
Brilliantly cast, artfully decorated and simmering with uncomfortable undertones, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is the rare triumph of a remake that equals its source material. Somewhere, Roald Dahl grins unwholesomely.