I went to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last night. Two thumbs up. This movie is well conceived, well cast, and well executed… oh, and I almost forgot, it has something to say that is worth saying. I found the film to be just as wonderfully subversive as The Incredibles; respect for the family is a subversive value these days. The creative powerhouse behind this project (director Tim Burton, screenwriter John August and composer Danny Elfman) is the same one that brought us one of my all-time favorite films, Big Fish.
This movie will do very well this summer, and it deserves to. If you didn’t like the earlier movie with Gene Wilder, fear not. This is a far richer, truer story. I love the fact that, when John August was asked to write the adapted screenplay, it was discovered that he had not seen the 1971 film. Apparently August asked Burton if he should see the 1971 version before writing his script. “Absolutely not,” said Burton. I already had great respect for Burton’s sensibilities — among other things, I suspect that he and Flannery O’Connor have kindred sensibilities — and this anecdote only increased my respect for him as an artist, storyteller and filmmaker.
After seeing the new movie, I rented the 1971 version, which was entertaining, but, to my mind, clearly an inferior film from the point of story.
The writer of the 1971 version seems to be constantly sneering at the audience with obscure (or perhaps completely absurd) references… that give the impression that the audience ought to be made to feel an outsider rather than a participant. And then there’s the whole acid-trip / occult glorification of the backwards ride down the river Styx. Not to mention the nod to Manicheanism / Gnosticism in making the evil character (Scrappleface?) just another hand of Providence. Incidentally, this character was nowhere in Dahl’s book.
If you watch the DVD extras from the 1971 version, you also learn that the title was changed to “Willy Wonka” (vs. Charlie) because the film was basically designed as a commercial vehicle to promote Quaker Oats’ entry into the candy market. The Wonka bar hit the shelves the same week as the movie, but had to be recalled because of some problem with the packaging or the mix of the chocolate — it was melting on the shelves. And the bar never made it back to the shelves, apparently. So the vehicle outlasted the product it was designed to promote.
The 1971 version is also a disturbing film to watch in light of the recent sex abuse scandal. The relationship between Charlie and Willy Wonka is creepy in this film in a non-reflective / non-critical way, which I think Burton knew would be impossible in the re-make… which I think justifies the whole backstory about Willy, which I thought worked well. After all, we live in a post-paternal culture, and I think we’d be remiss in saying that it hasn’t carried with it negative consequences.
Finally, the closing line of the 1971 film is an uncritical endorsement of the sexual revolution and the unbridled pursuit of pleasure – which seriously undercuts most of the major plot points of the second act. In the DVD extras, we learn that the screenwriter came up with the line after the fact, when called by the director who realized that the closing scene wasn’t working when it was being shot. The writer was off vacationing somewhere, and just pulled the line out of the sky in a serendipitous way.
All by way of saying that I think the new movie is a vast improvement over the original.