Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Directed by Tim Burton

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) is a young boy who dwells in a crumbling hovel with his father, who earns a pittance screwing caps onto tubes of toothpaste, his mother, who feeds the others a diet of boiled cabbage, and his four crippled grandparents, who share the family's single bed. Then, one day, Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), the mysterious owner of the vast but forbidden chocolate factory that looms over the town where this group lives, announces that in five of his candy bars will be hidden five golden tickets, each of which will entitle the child who finds it to a tour of his establishment. When Charlie discovers one of the tickets, he and his grandfather (David Kelly), who is so overjoyed by the boy's good fortune that he recovers the use of his legs, enter into Willy Wonka's bizarre manufactory, which is worked exclusively by an army of tiny, identical, orange skinned beings known as Oompa-Loompas (all of whom are played by Deep Roy), together with four other, very unpleasant children, including an obese glutton, an overly competitive chewing gum enthusiast, a television obsessed know-it-all, and a spoiled rich girl.

Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is based on Roald Dahl's book of the same title, is a fun, visually engaging film. While it is burdened with a number of flaws that do detract from its charm, these shortcomings are never so severe as to completely obscure the story's magic.

In fact, throughout most of its duration, the movie is so appealing to see, so suffused with a colorful whimsy, that it is certain to captivate the viewer. The town surrounding Willy Wonka's factory is a grim, grey place, although it is never as wretched as is the crooked, dilapidated cottage in which Charlie and his family live. All the dark, squalid details the director has here included evoke a dire but distinctly quirky world that, while sad, is oddly entrancing nonetheless. Having so submersed the viewer in this sorrowful landscape, the director lifts him out of it and transports him to the inside of the chocolate factory, where he reveals to him a weird wonderland of candy cane trees, chocolate rivers and waterfalls, shrubs laden with gumdrops, and a sugary longboat shaped like a dragon. Admittedly, a few of the rooms to which Wonka takes his guests are less than inspired, but, for the most part, the factory is definitely fun to look at.

What is more, the story Burton tells, which is largely dependent upon Dahl's book, retains several of the latter's vaguely unsettling details. The viewer is thus shown how, as a consequence of their various faults, a voracious young boy is sucked up into a pipe filled with liquid chocolate, how a greedy girl is dropped down a waste disposal chute which could lead to an incinerator, how an obstinate girl is bloated into a monstrous, gelatinous blob, and how a cocky, self-important boy is shrunk to the size of a hamster. Such elements infuse the narrative with a definite sense of fear, which makes it far more engaging and affecting than it would have been had it been more innocuous. After all, the best children's stories are always those that are enlivened by the presence of a tangible cruelty, which allows the person enjoying those tales to experience a real and poignant dread.

Regrettably, Burton has made a number of changes to Dahl's narrative that are less than entirely successful. Perhaps the most grating of these is his insertion of flashbacks of Willy Wonka's childhood, in which the character recalls his dentist father, Wilbur Wonka (Christopher Lee), who refused to allow his offspring ever to consume candy. The majority of these are surprisingly entertaining, but they culminate, near Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's conclusion, in a horribly maudlin and truly painful scene that significantly diminishes the film's appeal.

Actually, the whole of the movie's conclusion is too drawn out, nauseatingly sentimental, and distractingly false. Burton has crafted a marvelous morality tale burning with a bright magic and sharpened by a hint of savagery that, except for the odd misstep, is both mesmerizing and affecting. It is, consequently, a real shame that he has tacked on such an atrocious ending to that tale, which, being as artificial as it is, leaves the moviegoer with a nasty saccharine aftertaste.

Fortunately, the director has included so many unique elements in his movie, which will certainly make an impression on the viewer, that such flaws do not become overwhelming. For instance, Depp's performance as Willy Wonka is undoubtedly memorable, however the viewer may react to it. I must confess that I initially found the high pitched voice and delicate mannerisms adopted by the actor to be distracting. Nonetheless, as Depp revealed hints of both cruelty and instability, as well as a definite tinge of something distinctly unsavory, I came to appreciate his characterization of the strange confectioner. In brief remarks, he comments upon cannibalism, displays his disdain for the adults on the tour he is giving and his dislike of several of their children, and even causally notes the apparent bouts of madness from which he suffers. Thanks to such qualities, the character really does have an air of unhealthy and potentially dangerous oddness.

The other actors also generally acquit themselves well, but few of them are likely to fascinate the viewer. Deep Roy's portrayal of the armies of Oompa-Loompas, who have, it would seem, been enslaved by Wonka, is, however, a delight. The actor brings a physical vibrancy to the countless roles he plays and is able to enthrall the viewer whenever he appears to dance, sing, or toil.

Thanks to its numerous virtues, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is sure to appeal both to children and adults. In fact, it is one of the best children's movies I have encountered in some time.

Review by Keith Allen

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