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September 02, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Tim Burton

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Tim Burton
certificate PG, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a celebration of family values and dodgy economics, finds Harry Phibbs. It is also rather too dark for Mr Phibbs's liking.

I rather like children but I certainly don't recognise the sugary, sentimental portrayal of children in the typical Hollywood blockbuster. It is difficult to think of a film in recent years where the children are the baddies. Apart from this one. Certainly the hero, 11-year-old Charlie Bucket is absurdly, although quietly, virtuous. But the other children, who like Charlie win tickets to visit the Chocolate Factory, are portrayed in a decidedly unsympathetic light. One is spoilt (Verruca), another is pushy (Violet), another is fat and greedy (Augustus), another rude and sullen (Mike).

Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka, a thinly veiled caricature of Michael Jackson, delights in arranging a series of come-uppances for the unprepossessing offspring. It is impressive that this has been kept true to the Roald Dahl's story and I was also pleased that the original title was used rather than the hugely popular 1971 film version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

In terms of the broader messages the film sends out, most prominent is a celebration of family values. The Bucket family may be poor, living in a cramped hovel with Charlie's grand parents (strong performance by Eileen Essell as Grandma Josephine) all permanently ensconced in a bed in the sitting room, but they are loving and close knit. The exceptional extent of their poverty is stressed by a shot showing their lopsided home sticking out among row after row of modest but perfectly respectable terraced housing. Charlie's mother, played by Helena Bonham Carter stays at home uncomplainingly making cabbage soup because that's all they can afford.

It is the family, rather than the community, which really counts. When Charlie wins a wrapper which entitles him to visit the factory he suggests selling it as the family needs the money. When Wonka invites Charlie to come and live amidst the opulent luxury of the Chocolate Factory, Charlie turns him down. The rest of the Bucket family were not invited and Charlie was not prepared to leave them behind.

This aspect worked fine. What was more tiresome was the subplot (not in Roald Dahl's original story) that Willy Wonka's personality disorder results from difficulties with his own father (played by Christopher Lee). We really could do with Hollywood just getting on and telling the story. Instead they strive for "emotional literacy" by working in all this pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo to offer some deep psychological explanation for people's behaviour. But this is also used to back up the pro-family message. Charlie may be much poorer than Wonka financially but he is richer in the more important respect of having a loving family.

Some of the economics of the film are decidedly dodgy. There is the clear Luddite message that new technology means higher unemployment. Mr Bucket (Noah Taylor) loses his job in a toothpaste factory as a result of his job screwing on the tops being replaced by a machine - although he later gets it back fixing the machine. Apart from earning there meagre living the job also meant that Charlie's Dad had been able to take home defective toothpaste tube tops to his son to make into a model of the Chocolate Factory. Naturally they can't afford toys but the toothpaste tops are lovingly given and received.

The rich generally are portrayed unsympathetically. Part of the exhilaration of Charlie winning one of the hugely sought after golden tickets is that it happens so much against the odds. He could only afford to have one bar of chocolate a year. The golden wrapper is not there but he shares the chocolate with his relations. ("It's my chocolate, I'll do what I like with it", he says firmly brushing aside their protests.) That would seem to be that but then one of his grandfather's (David Kelly) finds the money to buy him another bar which is the winner.

By contrast Verruca's wealthy father engages in mass purchasing of the chocolate bars and diverts his peanut factory workers to the task of unwrapping them until a winning ticket is found. "It doesn't seem fair", says Charlie as the news comes in on the television, "it wasn't really her that found it".

Visually the factory scenes are hugely impressive with the "Oompa Loompa" workers - in fact all digitised duplicates of Deep Roy - going boating over rivers of chocolate in a Gothic children's paradise. But I could have done without the melting exploding Merry-Go-Round animals when they arrive at the factory. Most disturbing - as it was intended to be. There is a pressure with blockbuster films to spend a fortune on special effects just for the hell of it.

The justification given for this darker version is that it is more suitable for 2005. But this is a self fulfilling prophecy.

Clive Coleman in The Times, noting a similar trend with the Herbie film:

Even Herbie in the new version has complex psycho-automotive "issues" to deal with. His initially doomed relationship with a new-styled female VW Beetle is surely meant to alert today's children to the emotional impotence of aspirational love. Do we really need to imbue our childhood heroes with modern angst? If so, what can we expect to see from the remakes of other childhood classics? Bambi ensnared by hunters, not in a forest, but in an internet chat room? A team of men setting about the young elephant Dumbo and carrying out a cruel ear reduction operation so that he conforms to the modern stereotypical image of sleek elephantine youth?
Apparently Roald Dahl hated the 1971 version of this film with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He felt it was too "sickly-sweet" although that film proved a huge success with the children who watched it. We shall never know what Dahl would have made of the dark chocolate update with some of the childish fun replaced by psychobabble. I think it has swung too far back the other way.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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