Miranda Sawyer - Dark imaginings

Film - Burton takes a bitter-sweet view of Dahl's weird sugar world, writes Miranda Sawyer


Roald Dahl and Tim Burton seem a match made, if not in heaven, in some blessed spot where that good place meets its polar opposite. Their work bears remarkable similarities: both mix wild, youthful joy and imagination with a dark awareness that life isn't always as good as it might be, especially for child-ren. They share a message, too, which is that bad adults ruin things, but the misfit kid can win, especially if he has a chum (male or female, old or young) on his side.

And so we have Burton's version of Dahl's classic children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I'm not going to tell you the story, because you know it already, and if you don't, shame on you: go and read it now. Of course, no film can ever do the book full justice - Dahl's creation is too perfect for that - but Burton's comes very, very close, visually as well as in spirit.

Coming 34 years after Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mel Stuart's adaptation starring Gene Wilder as Wonka, Burton's film casts Johnny Depp as the odd-bod chocolatier. Whereas Wilder, as was his wont, swung between loopiness and sentimentality, Johnny plays it rather weirder. Wilder was definitely a man; Depp is stuck somewhere in early adolescence. His Wonka is a Michael Jackson type: a lonely, childish despot, complete with high-pitched voice, inability to mix and strained desire to make everything seem just perfect. (Thus, when he asks Charlie to give up his family and take over the factory, there's a rather sinister tone that creeps in. You can't help thinking of the recent Neverland shenanigans.) And Burton - though he sticks more faithfully to Dahl's book than Stuart - weaves in a new back-story as to why Wonka is so weird. We're asked to sympathise with the young Willy, elaborately dental-braced, whose father is a stern, chocolate-hating dentist. Now, Wonka can't even say the word "parents", he is so traumatised.

This might sound sad. It's not; it's funny. Burton's Chocolate Factory is alive with laughs, visual and scripted. When Wonka's dad examines his teeth as an adult, we see his face from within Willy's mouth, framed by his molars. When Augustus Gloop wins the first Golden Ticket, Charlie's Grandpa George grumps: "Told you it would be a porker." The children are a triumph: though there are slight changes (Violet Beauregarde has become a competitive, trophy-hunting Southern bellette; Mike Teavee is a stroppy video-game genius), these are essentially the same little gits who skipped out of Dahl's imagination. Charlie, played by Freddie Highmore, manages to be good without being prissy: a difficult job, which Highmore achieves wonderfully. It is nice, too, to see all of Charlie's grandparents (they were severely edited in Stuart's film); David Kelly makes an ideally sprightly Grandpa Joe.

The controversy will come with the all-important Oompa Loompas. Played by dwarfs in the 1971 film, they are now just one man, Deep Roy, digitally reproduced over and over. Though I've no doubt others will disagree, I thought this effect worked well: during the singing numbers - groovy Seventies disco for Violet's demise, West Coast pop for Veruca's - it is fun to spot the differences between each individual Oompa Loompa.

But there are less successful effects. The opening sequence of chocolate bars being created, cooled, wrapped and boxed is very obviously computer-generated, and so the film starts as a disappointment. When Violet turns into a blueberry, her digital version is about as convincing as the enormous doll that was used in the Gene Wilder film. Still, the sequence with Veruca and the bad-nut-hunting squirrels is undeniably fantastic, and much scarier than the 1971 film's substitution of golden-egg-laying geese.

Dahl's original story ends by taking us to the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which means that both filmed versions struggle to find a suitable finale. Stuart's literally leaves us in midair, flying in the Wonkavator (ugh) over Charlie's town; Burton's has a coda involving Charlie helping Willy to reunite with his dad. We finish with the Bucket family, complete with their house, moved right inside the factory. It works well.

In fact, this film delights pretty much from start to finish. Where it fails, it does so honourably, and only because the book has such a hold on its readers' minds that anything less than what they see in their imagination comes as a terrible disappointment. Thus, Violet's dodgy digitisation is more irritating than the creation of Willy Wonka's dad (Christopher Lee), as Burton is clever enough to weave Wonka's flashbacks into his film's magical atmosphere. The whole thing falls short only when you can spot the fakeness of the computer animations. As with the book, you want Charlie, Willy Wonka, the Oompa Loompas, to be real, to actually exist. Tim Burton clearly does, too.

Mark Kermode is away

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great