Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2005) Part 1

11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Debate rages over when Tim Burton lost it. At what point exactly did Burton stopped being one of the more interesting mainstream filmmakers and become just another work-horse director that cranked out highly profitable but deeply dull studio products? Most place the “Planet of the Apes” remake as the turning point but this discounts the mature, focused “Big Fish.” No, the film that signaled the change, that shows when Mr. Burton stopped being himself and started making movies that aren’t very good, is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” a movie that produces a viscerally negative reaction in me every time I watch. To quote the late Roger Ebert, I hate this movie.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” purported not to be a remake of the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” but, instead, a “reboot.” The new film was supposed to be closer in plot and tone to Roald Dahl’s original book. Considering Dahl hated the original, as he hated most things, his estate was highly protective of the rights, resulting in a drawn out pre-production that cycled through many directors and leading men before coming to Burton and Depp. However, all the talk of “rebooting” and fidelity to the source material was for naught. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It follows the exact same plot outline, even directly quoting several lines of dialogue from the original. The differences between the two movies are the work of the screenwriter and do not originate in Dahl’s text. The filmmaker’s intentions might appear to be noble but are strictly about cashing in on a recognized premise.

The most obvious change between the mutual Chocolate Factories is Burton’s version is possessed of a shrill sense of humor. For example: Upon arriving at the factory, the kids and their parents are greeted not by Wonka but by a display of singing, dancing robotic puppets. They sing an inane song about Wonka before fireworks go off. Several of the puppets catch on fire. The rubber burns off the mechanical skeletons in a disturbing, frightening fashion. Their song slows down to a freakish crawl. The movie never stops to recognize how fucking creepy this is. Instead, it seems delighted by it, as we are later greeted to a puppet “burn ward.” This is far from the only example of the film’s overwhelming shrillness. When leaping out of bed, Uncle Joe lets out an obnoxious “whoopee!” There’s an incredibly loud moment when fireworks are shot out of machine guns. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” isn’t funny and it’s attempts to be are incredibly off-putting.

Worst yet is the movie’s entirely unwarranted sense of self-superiority. The “Charlie” story brings out Burton’s worst tendencies for cruel, cynical, detached irony. This is, unfortunately, ingrained into the story’s DNA. Charlie is inherently superior to the other children and his kind behavior is in contrast to his selfish, stupid peers. However, Burton and screenwriter John August pushes this too far. Augustus Gloop is not just a glutton but a monstrous, disgusting over-eater, rampaging through the Wonka Candyland like Godzilla rampages through Tokyo. Violet Beauregard has been re-imagined as a suburban overachiever, flaunting her sense of superiority with an extensive collection of meaningless trophies. Her gum chewing, her original main attribute, has been pushed aside. She wears the same blue tracksuits as her mother, connecting her with the stereotype of the hollow, perfectionist suburban mom. The remake emphasizes the wealth of the Salt family. Veruca Salt is no longer just a spoiled, entitled cunt but now the face of the 1 percent. Weirdly, this makes her far less interesting. The kid who gets it the worse is Mike Teevee. The original Mike was precocious and obnoxious in his obsession with television. But at least you didn’t hate him. This new Mike is a fucking monster. Once again, he thinks he’s better then everyone else and constantly parrots facts like they're gospel. His television fascination has been traded out with an obsession with violent video games, because of course it has. All of the kids are dead-eyed little monsters, starring at the factory not with awe but detached boredom. The whole batch was born rolling their eyes. Mike Teevee even actively destroys the wonder of the factory but stomping on the giant candy. The original “Willy Wonka” was characterized by a childlike wonder. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a children's film that hates children.

This hatred for children is apparent in another way. One of the things that is endlessly fascinating about 1971’s “Willy Wonka” is that the story’s darkness simmers just under the surface. It appears to be a safe kid’s flick but is actually a deeply twisted morality tale. 2005’s “Charlie” shoves the darkness to the forefront. In the original, there was a comical whimsy when the bad kids were dispatched. Burton shoots the same scenes like miniature horror movies. Augustus Gloop is flooded up to his chin in chocolate in a way that brings a graphic, disturbing drowning to mind. Violet Beauregarde doesn’t just puff up into a cute blueberry. Instead, she violently and grotesquely expands, in a way sure to delight internet inflation fetishist. The movie trades out golden egg laying goose for nut-cracking squirrels, mostly so it can make crude jokes about “nuts.” When the squirrels attack Veruca, they very nearly gnaw and rend her flesh. Instead, the squirrels spread her legs in a repulsive and wholly unnecessary rape reference. When Mike Teevee is shrunk down, he is battered across several television stations, nearly crushed by the Oompa-Loompas several times. Unlike the Wilder version, this movie maintains the scene of kids leaving the factory, still alive. Showing their mutilated forms is actually far worst then implying their deaths. Violent bending like an alien in a Tool video or Mike transformed into Judge Doom post-steamroller is far creepier then the audience just assuming they’re dead.

For all the grim darkness Burton shovels into the movie, he seemingly wimps out in other ways. Instead of going nuts during the boat sequence, he instead reduces the scene to a lame roller coaster ride. The movie’s entirely cynical approach removes any lightness or whimsy from the story. The candy land set is impressive, looking like a Dr. Seuss illustration brought to life. However, Burton shoots with no sense of wonder. Instead, it’s simply a set and one heavily assisted by CGI, at that. When the movie goes for jokes that aren’t needlessly mean-spirited, the results are lame and limp. A lame pun about “whipped cream” is visualized and a pointless reference to “2001” is hammered into the viewer’s head.

If Gene Wilder was the heart of the original film, Johnny Depp is the simpering, hollow, dung-infested soul of this piece-of-shit remake. At the time of release, there was some controversy over Depp patterning his performance after Michael Jackson, drawing gross parallels between the Chocolate Factory and Neverland Ranch. However, Depp is only superficially imitating Jackson. Instead, his Wonka acts like a sad man-child with Aspergers. He’s socially awkward, reading off of cue cards when questions make him uncomfortable. He displays repeated verbal tics, chattering “Yeah” after his sentences. He has zero interest in anything other people say. Depp makes Wonka a deeply unlikable character, one that is totally alienated from the rest of the world. The Burton-esque Outsider has been extended to its extreme, coming off as entitled and obnoxious.

The film is a terrible example of mid-two-thousands reboot-itis. Even Willy Wonka is given an origin story. And it’s as groan-inducing and mind-numbingly dumb as possible. We discover that Wonka’s desire to make chocolate is because his father was a strict dentist that banned candy from his house hold. This embarrassingly Freudian origin is explained through flashback sequences that interrupt the main story at random intervals. The awkwardly grafted-on origin story is not the only way the film overexplains everything. An intrusive voiceover wedges in several time, providing some pointless exposition that adds nothing to the film.

In the original story, the Oompa-Loompas are pygmies, living in happy servitude. A deeply un-PC move like that wouldn’t fly even in 1971 and certainly wouldn’t happen in 2005. However, the new Oompa-Loompas aren’t orange-faced gnomes. Instead, short actor and Burton regular Deep Roy plays all of the workers, for no explained reason. At first, I figured they were all clones or something. But, nope, the movie maintains Loompaland, giving us a look at the Oompa-Loompas in their native habitat. Despite giving lip service to distancing itself from the ’71 version, these Loompas still sing. And, holy God, is it terrible. Catchy, sing-along show tunes have been traded out for obnoxious pop songs. Each sequence is done in a different style. Augustus Gloop gets a simpering pop number. Violet gets a hugely embarrassing funk riff. Veruca is sent off with a lame attempt at sixties psychedelia. Worst yet, is Mike Teevee’s exit to eighties hair metal. The music is terrible and the lyrics are insultingly shallow. As potentially weird as dwarfs in orange face paint was, an army of identical Deep Roys in fascistic jump suits is far more unnerving.

Dahl reportedly hated the 1971 film because Charlie wasn’t the main character. This assumption is ignorant of a fairly large flaw in the original text. Charlie is the least interesting character in the story. He’s unfailing goodness is a thin personality in comparison to the wild bad kids. Here, Freddie Highmore’s Charlie mostly sits on the sidelines, watching things happen to the other characters. His compassion for his family comes off more as a result of living in poverty for so long.

After over one hundred minutes of cynicism and shrillness, the movie goes for implausible sincerity in its final act. After surviving the tour, Charlie refuses the offer of the chocolate factory. Why? Because it would remove him from his family. His family that has barely been in the movie up to this point. Before an agreement is met, Willy reconciles with his own father, rediscovering the importance of family. The majority of the film does not explore the theme of family in any way. It’s a forced-in, unrelated moral that does nothing but add another fifteen minutes to a movie that is already too long and extends the story far past its logical conclusion.

So do I like anything about the movie? For all its problem, Burton at least maintains his trademark visual sense. The palette is more colorful but spirals are ever present. The Bucket home leans at an angle, the director once again showing his love of Expressionistic film. Probably the best moment in the film is a brief flashback to Wonka’s childhood Halloween. The black buildings, glowing jack o’lanterns, and kids in costumes are essential Burton-esque imagery and the director clearly relishes it. I may not care for the film around it but the director’s strong eye for set design remains strong. A few of the jokes actually land, like the cotton candy sheep or a crack about improvisation.

Is comparing “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” fair? Probably not. However, that’s the main problem with bad remakes. All they make you really want to do is re-watch the original. The film not only betrays the spirit of the source material but it also shows Burton and Depp’s interest curdling into something ugly. The movie grossed a lot of money upon release but isn’t discussed much today, which is the correct reaction. [Grade: D-]

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