A story in which kids are sucked up pipes and torpedoed down to incinerators sounded like the perfect project for Tim Burton and his frequent freak collaborator, Johnny Depp. But the trailers and entertainment-mag hype pieces for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory weren’t so promising. The Oompa-Loompas looked all too human. And Depp seemed kind of effete, even when you couldn’t hear his squeaky-voiced delivery. Nothing about this adaptation of the 1964 Roald Dahl novel seemed terribly unsettling—which was, well, unsettling.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the film to reassure that it’s not another toothless Big Fish. There’s Danny Elfman’s anxious, Hitchcockian opening music, for one. And the cold saucer eyes of the rotten children—excepting, of course, warm, lovable Charlie—who get their grubby hands on golden tickets. And better still is the greeting Willy Wonka (Depp) gives visitors before they enter his enormous mill of mystery: an assembly of animatronic kewpie dolls singing the infectious Wonka song. Their motions are stiff, their plastic skin mottled. And just when you’re thinking how creepy they are, they catch fire and melt.
It’s a deliciously fiendish first act, even if the movie is never again quite so dark. Burton has insisted that this version is not a remake of 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory but rather a fresh take on Dahl’s story (hence the return to the book’s name). But with the exception of a little tale-tinkering by Big Fish writer John August—Wonka now has some daddy issues, and the bite has been taken out of the end—the 2005 Charlie proceeds in much the same fashion as Gene Wilder’s showpiece.
The focus is still on Charlie (Finding Neverland’s Freddie Highmore), who’s dirt-poor and living in the factory’s shadow in a small, slanted house with his mother (Helena Bonham Carter), father (Noah Taylor), and two sets of bedridden grandparents, including former Wonka worker Grandpa Joe (David Kelly). A contest is announced in which five golden tickets will be hidden in Wonka confections around the world. The winners will get to tour Wonka’s factory, which has been closed to the public for years, with no one ever seen going in or coming out. Charlie wants a golden ticket more than anything, though because his family can afford to buy him only one candy bar a year, his chances are slim.
Of course, the earnest Charlie ends up becoming the fifth ticket-holder, after German butterball Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), British brat Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), and two Americans—snotty gum-chewing champ Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) and video-obsessed know-it-all Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry)—all of whom are suitably vile. The kids arrive full of excitement at Wonka’s door, though they soon realize that the chocolate factory has probably been shut off from the world because Willy’s nuttier than one of his Wonka Bars.
With Wilder’s batty turn as the chocolatier one of the more memorable aspects of the original, it’s no surprise that Depp does his utmost to make this Wonka all his own. “Weird” is one of Wonka’s favorite words—best employed here in the character’s puzzled reaction to one of Charlie’s acts of kindness—and as is often the case with Depp, it’s appropriate. Wonka’s pale, pageboy’d look is weird. His high-pitched “ha, ha, ha”s are weird. His tendency to stop midthought as he drifts back to “Papa” is weird. He’s clearly in a Tim Burton movie—but possibly the wrong one.
Though Depp’s performance is amusing enough, it rarely goes beyond the merely bizarre. His candy maker may be cheerily unhinged, but Wilder’s was flat-out disturbed. The first Wonka, who seemed to root secretly for each kid’s demise, clearly needed to be saved from his wretchedness. The new one, despite the bad-childhood psychology August outfits him with, is just a daffy, oblivious spectator to the “accidents” in his factory. Highmore, meanwhile, ably fulfills his duties of acting wide-eyed and innocent—not exactly the expert handling of emotional baggage he performed in Neverland. (Not to mention the fact that he’s a bit too polished to be believably penniless, in an uncharacteristic visual lapse for Burton. The original Charlie? That kid looked poor.)
Charlie’s set pieces are expectedly spectacular, with highlights including the edible day-glo woodland surrounding the factory’s chocolate waterfall; the dark, echoey factory innards that Wonka’s glass elevator travels through; and a giant white room full of nut-shucking squirrels that turn frighteningly violent toward the demanding Miss Salt. And future generations will likely appreciate that the Oompa-Loompas (played by one actor, Deep Roy) aren’t as terrifying as the originals. Nearly all of Willy Wonka’s nightmare-inducing musical numbers have been axed, replaced by songs in various wink-wink genres—Bollywood, boy band, hard rock—that the little workers, in little outfits, rather entertainingly perform. Of course, it’s OK if they simply act funny. The same can’t be said of their not-so-fearsome leader.
Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Caterina in the Big City relates the adventures of an outcast kid. But just when it seems as if the most important issue raised by the movie is going to be the one asked by Caterina’s new eighth-grade classmate—“Are you alternative or preppy?”—writer-director Paolo Virzì turns his fish-out-of-water tale to something much more complex.
To be fair, the opening scene hints that this isn’t all about the girl. Caterina’s father, elementary-school teacher Giancarlo (Sergio Castellitto), is giving his students a farewell speech. He doesn’t hesitate to tell his slow-witted former charges in the backwoods that he despises them and is ecstatic that his transfer to Rome has finally been granted. Giancarlo doesn’t leave his intellectual arrogance at school, either, carefully instructing the bright Caterina (Alice Teghil) on how to get the most of out her education and sighing whenever his dim wife, Agata (Margherita Buy), fails to get his jokes.
Caterina, who’s never happier than when she’s alone and pretending to conduct the classical music playing in her headphones, doesn’t know whether she’s alternative or preppy, but she’s heavily recruited by the boisterous, confident, and politically savvy members of both factions of her class. Margherita, the black-haired, kohl-eyed daughter of divorced leftist intellectuals, leads the commie contingent and gets to Caterina first, teaching her how to drink, fight the Man, and listen to Nick Cave. Giancarlo couldn’t be more pleased: He takes advantage of his daughter’s friendship by attempting to slip his unpublished novel to Margherita’s mom, a well-connected writer—which he asks Margherita to keep on the down-low from Caterina.
As the focus shifts from the guileless Caterina to the increasingly unhinged Giancarlo, it becomes clear that Virzì and co-writer Francesco Bruni are presenting the schoolyard as emblematic of, well, a whole lot of things—political divisiveness, social climbing, class lines, lifestyle choices, bitterness over one’s perceived lot in life. Castellitto subtly morphs from an overearnest academic to a man so desperate to play with the popular kids that he doesn’t even care what they’re all about. When Caterina’s friendship with Margherita turns sour and she takes up with Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), the whoo-hooing, party-hopping daughter of a powerful figure in Italy’s reactionary government, Giancarlo immediately starts groveling for favors.
Teghil makes Caterina an appealing lens through which the complexities of Italian politics and urban life get filtered. Her clueless delight in following whatever the other girls are doing is an unsettling contrast with Giancarlo’s careful, greedy orchestrations. And as the man undone by his desire to live a life other than his own, Castellitto is devastating to watch, slipping so gradually to the point of embarrassment that it’s something of a shock to realize that his failures are his own fault. Giancarlo should consider himself lucky that he only has a breakdown. If Wonka had a say, he’d head straight for the incinerator.CP