Pop culture pundit Nathan Rabin once wrote an excellent column for the now-defunct The Dissolve called Forgotbusters, focusing on films that made a huge impact at the box office, only to instantly disappear from the collective conscious of their viewers. Have you thought about Hancock recently? How about Antz? Those are Forgotbusters. Regrettably, the column ended before Rabin got a chance to revisit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the seventh highest grossing film of 2005, but remembered by audiences mostly with a bewildered “well, that happened.”
Over a decade in development, nearly a half-dozen directors (including, improbably, Martin Scorsese) were attached to Charlie at various times before it finally landed in the hands of Tim Burton. It seemed such a perfect pairing of director to material that one wonders why it took so long for it to get to Burton, let alone why it took no less than four full rewrites of the script before filming finally got underway. What seemed to be the matter of most importance, even beyond casting and production design, was that it not resemble 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a beloved classic that author Roald Dahl hated. On that basis alone, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an unqualified success. It absolutely does not resemble its predecessor in any way. It doesn’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen. All quirk and no substance, it’s one of the dreariest, most inert children’s movies of the 2000s, with a grossly unearned third act dramatic arc involving a character resolving his daddy issues.
That character is, of course, Willy Wonka. Though Dahl complained that the earlier movie focused too much on Wonka, he remains front and center here as well, ultimately to its detriment. While Gene Wilder played the role with a gleam of playful madness in his eyes, a sort of magician who understands that children see the world differently than adults, in the newer movie Wonka is dour and neurotic, and treats his young guests as a distasteful intrusion. He comes across more as mentally ill than eccentric, exacerbating the oppressively un-fun mood of the movie. Nevertheless, Dahl’s family reportedly loved this take on the character, claiming it was what Dahl had envisioned when writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though it doesn’t really come across to the casual reader.
A host of actors were attached at various times to playing Wonka, including some obvious choices (Jim Carrey, Will Smith), a few less obvious (Brad Pitt, Michael Keaton), and a couple “holy shit, could you imagine” contenders (Nicolas Cage, Marilyn Manson). Burton ultimately cast Johnny Depp, in what would be their fourth collaboration. This would seem at first blush to be a great
Things were different, now, however—this was Depp after ascending to superstardom by playing Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a movie that made Disney so much money that thinking about it too long causes an actual physical pain behind one’s eyes. For better or worse, Depp’s performance as a sloshed swashbuckler who looked like he was wearing the entire inventory of a Bahamian gift shop was instantly iconic. Going forward, Depp decided he was going to play every role as a shambling display of affectations and weird hair, whether it was called for or not, and, oh boy, did he make some choices when he was cast as Willy Wonka. A little steampunk mixed with goth vampire and topped off with Anna Wintour’s pageboy haircut and a set of ghastly false teeth, he looked more like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and spoke in a bizarrely fey voice, sounding like a standup comedian imitating a middle-aged white woman.
The only thing that mitigates it a bit is that the adults who visit Wonka’s factory are a collection of unpleasant caricatures themselves, because the film doesn’t trust its audience to know who’s supposed to be “good,” and who’s supposed to be “bad” (to be fair, neither does the earlier movie, and it’s an inherent problem with entertainment made for children). It’s even more of a challenge here, because everything in the film, save for angelic Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) and his saintly parents, comes off as sinister. Even scenes of candy being manufactured, something that should inspire wonder and delight, is set to Danny Elfman’s now-ubiquitous “la la la” score. Everything is dim and hazy, like a dream that could easily turn into a nightmare, a strange mood for a lighthearted story about a boy who is so very good and pure that he wins his very own candy factory.
Or at least, that was what the story was about. For all of Burton’s insistence that his version of Charlie would be more faithful to the book, and that it would be more about Charlie than Wonka, as Roald Dahl wanted, it doesn’t end with Wonka handing over the keys to the kingdom. No, it just slogs on, as Charlie helps a despondent Wonka reconnect with this father, the world’s most terrifying dentist played by Christopher Lee. Neither Lee’s character nor this plot exist in the book, and seem to function largely to give Wonka some backstory (something Dahl obviously didn’t think he needed, otherwise he would have given it to him) and for an excuse to show a young Wonka in an enormous headgear contraption that looks like something out of a Saw movie. You know, for kids!
In the interest of fairness, the child actors are all well cast, particularly Highmore as Charlie. Burton simply using the same actor, Deep Roy, to play all the Oompa-Loompas is a clever (if not somewhat unsettling) solution to problematic characters originally written as pygmy slaves. There are some truly inspired moments, such as using real squirrels in the chocolate factory’s “nut room.” With Burton at the helm, the whole movie should have been able to maintain that level of storybook magic, and the sense that Charlie had stepped into a world where all his wildest dreams are possible. Instead, it’s dark and joyless, a bonbon filled with horseradish and followed up with a sugary epilogue that’s supposed to make it all go down easier.