Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Willy Wonky

I had been avoiding the latest film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For a number of reasons: Frankly, I did not like what I saw in the previews. I'm on the fence regarding Tim Burton. The Gene Wilder Wonka lives in my heart.

Regarding the previews, I felt the visuals tried too hard to be outlandish. (Not that Wonka isn’t outlandish.) To me it seemed as if they felt they HAD to be different from the previous movie, to the point of nausea. There's a difference between exotic and outlandish. As for Burton, I greatly admire his work. But on more than one occasion, I needed more from elements of the story. Half-baked, I find myself saying. The attention to details seems to go to the wrong places – with delightful results, to be sure. Like many, Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka for me. It's kind of hard to live without “Pure Imagination.”

Thus, I chose not to watch it. I didn’t see the need to taint my memories of it with a crazy-cool-slick version. Rather recently, however, I learned that Burton had never seen the Mel Stuart masterpiece. Jeepers! Having been so influenced by the film myself, I found it hard to imagine. What would Dahl’s masterpiece look like to someone who had never seen Wilder's factory? Given this light, I changed my mind. Besides, I had heard that Burton stuck closer to the book and that meant the wonderful nut-shelling squirrel room would be in it. (And I do so love Johnny Depp in general.)

So, I watched.
At this point I will admit that I had made the sin of seeing the Stuart/Wilder movie before reading Roald Dahl’s novel. Dahl, however, also wrote the screenplay to the film. He wanted to fix a few aspects of it, to give it a little more plot and drama. The full character Slugworth, for instance, is not in the book. I prefer Dahl’s movie script. Although the golden egg geese are a marvelous substitution, I do so love the squirrels!

And Burton’s presentation of them – just as marvelous. On the whole, I found much to enjoy in this film. And bravo for sticking so close to the book. But true to form, I found a quite a bit that left me sour.

In general, I did like the production design. It might be more correct to say that, based on having just the text to go from, I did not hate it as I thought I might. As usual, I’d prefer a happy medium ground between it and the original film.

Opening with the (typically Burton) movement through the factory and showing the placement of the Golden Tickets – couldn’t love this enough. Although I liked seeing the rise of Wonka, so to speak, I prefer to not see Wonka himself in any capacity until they go to the factory. True, the prince’s chocolate palace and such are in the book as told by Grandpa Joe, but somehow Wonka is best shrouded in mystery. After all, Charlie cannot see Wonka but in his imagination. The “upgrade” for Mike Teavee to video games is understandable, arguably a necessary commentary, as it combines his guns and television obsessions. Let’s face it: Charlie finding the Golden Ticket and running home is ever so much more powerful and uplifting in the original. Otherwise, for the most part, the sequences up until the factory are quite amusing. Now the factory… well, that’s where it started to melt. (I had to.)

The song performed by the singing puppetronics is deliciously annoying and invasive in the good sense and in fact a charming way to present Wonka in a tricky fashion. However, like the Charlie running home scene, it’s tough to beat the impact of Wilder’s impromptu* falling down. Besides, the effect had also been negated by having already seen Wonka, as I stated earlier. The Oompa Loompas, I’m sorry, just did not work for me. The clone aspect – even though it must have taken a good deal of work, it seemed like a cop-out. No mention of them being identical is made in the book (and they are supposed to have long hair.) To be fair, Stuart’s are alike and do not have long hair, but something about the friendly-creepiness of Stuart’s cannot be beat. Burton’s Oompa Loompas are a bad Broadway show and blackout cannot come soon enough. Showing us the Loompaland scene from the book turned out to be a treat, but not a savory one. Every so often the factory teetered on the edge of that over-outlandishness I had feared. But teetered, it never fell over before the next delight came along.

The Great Glass Elevator – possibly the best part of the movie. YES.

Willy Wonka. Where do I begin? At the beginning, I suppose, which is precisely what I disliked the most. Giving a back story to Willy? I’m sorry, it’s not only presumptuous and unnecessary, but tedious. His precious patriarchally oppressive non-candy childhood. Really? I don’t know about you, but for me Willy Wonka just is in the world. He’s an enigma. He could be a god, for all we know. I’m not saying he is, just pointing out that he embodies a magical, otherworldly quality. Knowing where such a power originates is just no fun. Especially not something as dull as a plain donut. [They did this for the Grinch in the live action film as well. Contradicting other Seuss writings about the Grinch, I might add.] I veto the boo-hoo past. It also disrupts the flow of the film.

Johnny Depp is amazing and can do anything. And (as always) he’s quite good at convincing me he’s not just Depp in another role. Bravo. But I’m afraid I cannot fully applaud the portrayal of Willy Wonka. Yes, I prefer Wilder. But not entirely for that reason alone. Incorporating the back story that I so object to, we receive a Wonka who is self-tortured, a Wonka trying to fill a void, an insecure and socially awkward man. Being reclusive might account for the awkwardness, but this combination of traits doesn’t add up to the self-assured Wonka I’ve come to know through film and book. When Wilder (or book) Wonka shuts up a question with a quip, it flows as smooth as churning chocolate, with nonchalance. Grand confusing made simple. Depp’s Wonka is agitated and snaps back like a kid insulted on the playground. But the common denominator among Wonkas, it would seem, is exuberance. Curiously, both versions left out his goatee. (As did the cartoon Wonka for the candy franchise.)

I didn’t find it necessary to show us the altered children at the end. But I’d not remembered that this scene is also in the book. Perhaps Burton’s jarred me more because their transfigurations could actually be seen. Or more likely, it’s because in the book, Dahl has Wonka, Charlie and Grandpa Joe commenting on how the other children have been changed, whereas Burton does not. Dahl's has substance over shock.

I must again commend it on the overall accuracy to the novel. Bravo. (But that "bravo" does not include the haircut scene at the end, either.) The twist of Charlie’s acceptance worked well enough, even if it does mix in with Wonka's sluggish daddy issues. But again, I must compare it to the returning of the Gobstopper in the original film. Stuart wins…for after all, that twist from the book came from Dahl himself.

So that’s what I think. A valiant attempt, and quite successful at times. Overall, it lacked the richness and flavor of the original movie…and while it did have the texture of the Dahl book, it didn’t have quite the same “smell” as one. I think too many nuts went into this batch.

I’ll have you know that while writing this review, I had to go out and get a chocolate bar.

*Gene Wilder came up with the idea of Wonka falling down and somersaulting, so that from the first moment his trustworthiness is called into question. (And, oh, how well it works!)


Anonymous said...

Your disdain of historical context and your preference in attaching mystery to potentially ordinary events or personalities makes me think you could be an excellent Pope.

Peter said...

I'm confused, as I do not have any disdain for historical context that I notice. In fact, I'm all for it. And if you read the book or see the movie, mystery is definitely inherent in the tale. If you meant giving Wonka a backstory as "historical" I really don't think that qualifies under so grand a heading. Besides my "disdain" for it is based not just on the "mystery" aspect, but for flow of story, as I mentioned.

As for Pope, a nun once told me that when another Pope Peter manifests, the world will end. I don't think you want that.

And I do wish people would not remain anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Wonka's backstory is historical...sure not in the dusty leatherbound book sense, but it is a history. The only thing that wouldn't have a history is god itself, which to some degree is what I sense you are invoking in Wonka, which would be very papal in character.

The world will end sometime; might as well be now :]

Peter said...

Very well, Wonka's backstory qualifies as history in that sense. What I'd suggest then, is a better one than found in this movie. I did describe it in the post as "dull as a plain donut." We must also not lose sight of the fact that Dahl did not present us with his backstory, even when given the chance to rework it. Perhaps he wanted to elicit such debate. :)

And if anyone deserves the title of Pope of Chocolate, it's Willy.