Roald Dahl is the most popular children’s author of all time, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is his greatest book. The book delights kids, and scares them a little bit. Hollywood has adapted it before, with Gene Wilder as the candyman Willy Wonka. Wilder was Groucho and Harpo in the same body — a foxy, unhinged performance that made a wheezing movie become unpredictable.
Tim Burton’s postmodern version stars his usual leading man, Johnny Depp, as Willy. They have preserved the letter of the book, but their spirit borders on savage. There should be a sign outside the theater which says "You must be at least this tall to take this ride". And yet I can see a certain kind of child stumbling on this movie and feeling that somebody really understands him. He’ll see himself not in Charlie, who is shoved aside, but in Willy.
Pure-hearted poor boy Charlie Bucket, Freddie Highmore from Finding Neverland , is one of five children to find a golden ticket in his candy bar. The ticket admits them to a one-day tour of the fabulous candy factory, led by Willy himself. The other children are beastly creatures. Their parents come along, so we see the bad parenting that created them, and the horrid people they will become.
The factory is vast, twisty funhouse that even Willy doesn’t fully understand or control. The tour starts in the mixing room, where a chocolate waterfall churns a chocolate river. Everything is edible, even the Astroturf. Like any factory, if you touch the wrong thing, it can kill you.
Agustus Gloop, the obese German boy, tries to drink the river, falls in, and gets sucked up a tube. Is he made into fudge? Does the spoiled brat, Veruca Salt, burn up in the incinerator? The book and the movie are deliciously coy. Each room is a Venus fly trap, baited with the children’s character flaws – and this Willy Wonka is out for revenge.
Willie is a ghoulish recluse who reads from cue cards so he won’t say anything too bizarre. He wears surgical gloves, like his Dentist father, to avoid contact with people. Here’s Dr. Wonka, played by horror great Christopher Lee: "This is a lollipop. It should be called cavities on a stick." He straps his son in headgear like a medieval torture device, stretching the boy’s mouth in a permanent rictus. What a quintessentially Burton hero. Think of The Joker’s wound-as-smile, and Jack Skellington’s carved pumpkin grin.
Willy is an artist trapped inside a factory. When you see all the assembly line imagery, and consider the movie’s last shot, it’s easy to see that factory as Hollywood. Tim Burton has made a Halloween chocolate with a razorblade inside, and got it past the studio squirrels. In life, as in art, Willy Wonka has had the last laugh.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.