Chris's Disc Reviews

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

A review of the DVD release by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.


Disk format: DVD

Region: 2

Directed by: Tim Burton

Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Henea Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy

It's always fun watching a Tim Burton film, because even when he's off his game (which doesn't happen often, but Planet of the Apes springs to mind), he still produces something that looks amazing and is crammed full of wonderful performances. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he's very much back on form, and the cast he's got are exceptional.

Freddie Highmore is great as Charlie, giving one of the best performances from a child actor that I've ever seen. Charlie's Grandpa (David Kelly) is a revelation - and it's hard to believe it's thirty years since he played the builder Mr O'Reilly in Fawlty Towers. The supporting actors are all brilliant, too; it was very nice to see Liz Smith (older viewers might remember her from the BBC TV series I Didn't Know You Cared) as Charlie's Grandma Georgina and Missi Pyle (I've never got over her manic performance as one of the aliens in Galaxy Quest) as Violet's mother.

The biggest question has to be: how does it compare to the first version, the one starring Gene Wilder? That's where the trouble begins. The first movie is so iconic, so memorable, that all the way through I found myself making comparisons between the two versions. Both movies are so idiosyncratic, so distinctive, that it's almost impossible to do anything else. In the new movie, there's more examination of Wonka's motivation, looking at how such a bizarre character could exist. In this regard, Christopher Lee's appearance as Wonka's dentist father is probably the best bit of the film. Burton wisely tackles Roald Dahl's orginal material pretty faithfully; the songs sung by the oompa loompas use much of the original lyrics from the book. Unfortunately, the resulting songs by Danny Elfman don't have the staying power that the numbers in the original movie had. I couldn't sing you more than two lines of any of the new material, but I bet after you read "oompa-loompa dumpity do..." you're already humming "I have a perfect puzzle for you..." In fact, I bet you'll find it difficult to stop: the originals had songs that went in and *stuck*. For that reason alone, I'm afraid I'd still give the original the edge.

The oompa loompas themselves are the other thing that didn't work for me. Deep Roy gives a wonderful performance - in fact he gives hundreds of wonderful performances - but he's let down by the special effects. Sometimes he looks like he's about six inches tall, at other times he might be three feet tall. There's no continuity in this, and when the oompa loompas interact with other people in the cast the illusion is shattered.

Don't get me wrong, though: the new film is still good. In fact it feels like a great celebration of English eccentricity. I was trying to put my finger on why it comes across as quintessentially British. One reason was the way in which the Wonka/Mike Teevee interactions point out the whole ridiculous aspect of the thing. Every plot weakness that Mike points out is greeted with Wonka bellowing "Mumbler!" It's a very British thing to do. I think the Britishness is also probably because so many of the cast (including the director's wife, of course) are British. Because of this, a couple of events that happen in the film (most notably the point where Charlie finds an American ten dollar note in the street) feel jarringly wrong. Of course, American audiences are unlikely to notice this at all.

While we're talking about eccentricity, I have to say that Depp's performance here is truly something different. He's been in quite a few of my favourite films and he's delivered an extraordinarily wide spectrum of characterisations in his time, but I don't think I've ever seen him do anything like this before. There's a fair bit of physical comedy at a couple of points, involving walking in to the fourth wall, but the main impression that comes across from this Mr Wonka is one of weird creepiness. He's disconnected, erratic, and disturbing. Having said that, I didn't think he conveyed the sense of menace, of being potentially dangerous in the way that Gene Wilder did. In fact, while a number of ambiguities from the first film have been removed - particularly the part where Charlie and his grandfather misbehave (and get away with it) - in the last ten minutes of the new film Wonka is far more ambivalent. His reaction to Charlie turning him down is not what I expected. In the original, you'll remember, Gene Wilder basically comes out with "...and that was the right answer!" Here, you get the impression that Charlie really may not get a second chance, and Wonka has taken him at his word.

The next biggest question has to be: does the Wonka character here have any traits that might have been borrowed from a well-known pop singer? This is more difficult to answer, even given that Depp has denied basing his performance on Neverland's principal resident. I'm sure the parallels were obvious to both Depp and Burton while they were making the movie, and both Wonka's voice and peculiar complexion make the comparison impossible to avoid. That, and the fact that he appears to be living in something very close to an amusement park. On a subconscious level, I'm sure Depp knew exactly what he was doing, but the audience I was watching this with were split 50-50.

While I was watching the film, I was trying to think why Charlie's father (Noah Taylor) looked so familiar. Then, while I was watching Vanilla Sky again last night, there he was, playing the character Ed Ventura. A brief trawl through IMDB revealed that he also appeared in the Tomb Raider movies, so I'd have seen him there, too. The biggest surprise, though, was finding out that the film's narrator, Geoffrey Holder, played Baron Samedi in the Bond film Live and Let Die!

The DVD? Well, you get two discs with the usual extras but they also come with profoundly irritating anti-piracy ads at the beginning that you can't skip. I really find these things annoying, and they put me off watching the film for repeat viewings.

Could do better, I'm afraid.

Chris's rating: Four Stars

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