From the archives: "Weird and snide"

The candy man: Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka.

After seeing Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the summer of 2005 I described the first half hour as “simply marvelous […] the ramshackle house which Charlie shares with his family contains as many odd angles as a German Expressionist painting.  When Charlie finally peels open the wrapper of a Wonka chocolate bar to reveal the shiny foil of the Golden Ticket—the much-prized day pass inside the famous chocolate factory of Willy Wonka himself—the moment is so grand you want to weep.”  I hailed Charlie’s discovery of the Golden Ticket as “one of the great, magical scenes in children’s literature, as satisfying to some primal, childlike corner of our brains as the sliding of Cinderella’s slipper onto her foot.”  For me, the scene tapped into “our childhood dreams of making a wish—a wildly improbable one—and having it come true, against all odds.”

But the whimsy of the film soon turned sour.  I reacted badly to Johnny Depp’s decision to play Willy Wonka with “a creepily aloof air of detachment; his voice is light and distant, he titters nervously, then snaps suddenly and nastily at the kids, whereupon he waves himself off with another nervous titter […] Wonka comes off as weird and snide from the moment we lay eyes on him.” 

And by the third act Burton had completely lost me: 

“The film’s most thundering misstep comes with the introduction of Christopher Lee as Willy Wonka’s domineering father, a dentist who denies little Willy the pleasure of sweets as a child and presumably drives him to become the world’s greatest chocolatier […] it’s all very Freudian and not very clever, and unforgivable in any film as wonderfully dark as to include a scene in which a bitchy little girl is dragged down a garbage chute by a swarm of squirrels. Any such film will inevitably suffer from a bleary, tacked-on reconciliation scene in which an estranged father and son share a hug […Roald] Dahl never would have allowed such treacle in his work, which, like all great fairy tales, points to moral truths without moralizing tediously.”

I would go on to make a similar argument about Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella ten years later—a very different film, but one that struck me as just as wrong-headed in its understanding of fairy tales.  As for Burton, he had already begun his descent into the stuff of cliché; I found his Sweeney Todd (2007) to be serviceable, and I wrote favorably about the campy 1970s-Gothic vibe of Dark Shadows (2012), but he has never again made good on the promises of early films like Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990).  Through the Looking Glass is the most recent children’s classic to undergo the Burton treatment, which has itself ossified into a brand under the auspices of the Disney empire.  Burton has become, somewhat like Willy Wonka, an artist trapped within the labyrinth of his own creativity—a factory that is also a prison.

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