It’s a strange thing, nostalgia. It affects people differently. There are people, for example, who believe that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a classic, Gene Wilder among them. They love the songs and Wilder’s performance and the ‘70s of it all. Personally, I put that down to seeing it as a child. I have the Oompa-Loompa song in my head still, and the image of Wilder getting his cane stuck in the paving and looking like he’s going to fall, only to roll out in the manner of a true showman, is imprinted in my psyche. However, it is not a great movie and is not a perfect adaptation of the book, even though the screenplay was written by Dahl himself.
All of which brings us to this version. Working from a script by John August that stays truer to the book (with a back-story element added and a different ending to avoid the glass elevator sequel), Tim Burton brings back his old pal, Johnny Depp, to play the part of disturbed man-child that is Willy Wonka. The story is mostly the same; Charlie Bucket is a poor boy who (eventually) gets one of the five Golden Tickets that will allow a child and a family member access to the amazing confectionery factory of the reclusive Willy Wonka.
Leaving aside the question of whether we actually needed an another adaptation, it can be said that this film looks quite lovely. Burton and his production designer have let their minds expand in order to bring to fruition the psychedelic interior of the chocolate factory. It was quite sumptuous to behold. But you could only notice that when you aren’t looking at Depp. He is hilarious as Wonka, with the teeth, costume, accent and attitude a joy to watch. While Wilder went for more sympathetic, Depp plays Wonka as disturbed and psychologically stunted, as he should be. When he first appears on the screen, seemingly out of nowhere, he brings laughter just by being there, so that you don’t mind the wonderful slapstick joke being repeated because it is so funny.
Everyone else plays second fiddle; Freddie Highmore as Charlie is good, although he doesn’t have much to do; Burton manages to get his other half, Helen Bonham Carter, into one of his films for the third time in a row; Christopher Lee looks like he’s walked in from another film but is good nonetheless, and it’s always good to see Noah Taylor in a big film again. All the other children and their parents are sufficiently odious but my favourite appearances were from Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon, as the dog walkers who reveal the Russian forgery, because they were in Spaced, the greatest sitcom ever.
The only strange choice was in narration – why was Geoffrey Holder narrating? (I had to look him up to find out that he was Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die.) His voice sounded slightly off, like a strange white man doing an impression of James Earl Jones. Or perhaps it was the sound at my cinema – it was very fuzzy, especially when trying to listen to the Oompa-Loompa songs, and definitely dampened the enjoyment of the film. That said, the songs were trying a bit too hard and, seeing as the first one was a complete musical (it was only watching it again recently on television that made me remember that there was a bloody song every five minutes) they should have perhaps played them down, but what can you do when you’ve got Danny Elfman doing the music?
On the whole, this film was an enjoyable experience without any of the quality to deserve re-watching, apart from the wonderful Depp. There are some nice touches (the use of 2001: A Space Odyssey was nice, and the filmic in-joke of having the television scene flit into the shower scene of Psycho where, famously, they used chocolate sauce to double for blood) and it’s interesting to see the comeuppances for the brats in CGI reality, even if it wasn’t necessary. It was in discussion with my girlfriend afterwards that she was able to pinpoint why; the first version, although different from the book and flawed in its own way, has an ending which leaves the audience with an emotionally satisfying feeling as they leave the film – Charlie shows he is worthy of the factory by being honest and returning the everlasting gobstopper. This film doesn’t have that, inserting an ending to do with Willy Wonka that brings the story full circle. It’s quite flat. Because the whole point of the book (and hopefully the film) is being unpleasant to horrible children for being greedy in their different ways, it seems strange to reward another greedy child (Wonka and his single-mindedness) with a happy ending.