Thursday, December 29, 2016
Better In Your Head?--CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Roald Dahl wrote nineteen novels, of which I've read eleven. It's possible that one of the untouched eight is better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But I rather doubt that.
For number four, Dahl looked back to boyhood, recalling when the fine folks at Cadbury would send test packages to his private school, eager to get the vital "youth opinion" on their products. Chocolate was serious business then; competing confectionery companies would fire moles at one another's factories to smoke out the toppermost secrets.
Dahl started with a cast of fifteen; at one point, there were thirty children. Other concepts considered: a Wonka son named Freddie, weekly factory tours, a black boy as Charlie. Mike Teevee was originally named Herpes Trout; the Oompa Loompas, Whipple-Scrumpets. Not all of the author's ideas were so damned silly--indeed, the original draft was far more violent, featuring children burned to death from the inside out, kids ground to powder, drowned scamps, tinkers cut to ribbons.
Make no mistake, Roald Dahl was not a well man.
Clap hands, here comes Charlie Bucket! The start is far from whirlwind, a blow of air through a straw perhaps, but what unfolds is supreme storytelling. The Bucket brood--mom, dad, two sets of grandparents--is dreadfully poor, subsisting on starch and cabbage. Charlie in particular is growing more and more gaunt with each slowly passing day. It's all very sparse and British, and as a child in middle-class America the possibility of a life without junk food horrified me to the point that my Cheeto-stained fingers began trembling with every turn of the page.
Then his luck changes, horrid to tremendous, and he wins a trip to the factory of one Willy Wonka. The world's most notorious candy crafter, Wonka is a striking figure: fresh dipped in a plum velvet tailcoat, gray gloves and green trousers. He's also a "magician with chocolate," meaning he works magic with chocolate, not that he is a magician who just happens to have chocolate nearby. So of course he wears a befitting hat. He is also--
Charlie is but one of five fortunate. The other four are agemates who also happen to be his diametric opposites: rude, selfish, well-fed and television-owning. Alongside their parents (or in Charlie's case, Grandpa Joe), the young ones follow the man of the funhouse as he moves about with gobsmacking alacrity, providing unprecedented access to such edible marvels as experimental gum, never-melt ice cream, strawberry-flavored chocolate-covered fudge...oh come now, that last one is just ridiculous.
One by one, the children get into some misadventure and drop off of the tour. The Oompa Loompas (freakish factory workers saved by Mr. Wonka from their apparently dreadful native land) provide a Greek chorus after each unceremonious exit, with lyrics specific to the situation.
At the end, only Charlie remains. The kid Bucket goes from Death Valley to Mount Everest--just for following orders and minding manners!
(The less-fortunate four are described leaving the factory, alive but altered. Still, it's noted that each of them receives a lifetime supply of chocolate. What the hell lesson is that? Decent, sweet, good kid Charlie should have been the only one so richly rewarded. This is some "participation trophy" stuff, and I ain't with it. "Participation certificate," sure. Like maybe give 'em all some coupons for "35% off your next ten purchases at your local poison pusher.")
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is among the most pornographic books ever written--if you consider food equivalent to sex, which I do. It's thoroughly Z-grade: it zips, it zings, it zaps, it zooms, and it zagzigs rather than zigzags, because the candy man insists that it can. It's Roald Dahl at the apex of his abilities, and those are the most daunting works of all to adapt.
"What is this, a freak out?"
Roald Dahl's greatest book became a great film. All it took was the young daughter of David Seltzer asking her dad to make a film with "Uncle Dave" (producer David L. Wolper), who just so happened to be in talks with the folks at Quaker Oats about making a promotional vehicle for a new candy bar.
The title was changed to tie in with the real-life candies. Both film and food bombed--the former because sometimes brilliance has to pack a lunch, the latter because it melted on store shelves. Dahl detested the movie, especially how it shifted the focus from Charlie to Wonka. He further found the actor hired to play Wonka "insufficiently gay and bouncy." (For writing the original draft, Dahl received 300,000 USD, which he assumedly did like.)
It was also turned into a musical. The last time that happened in this review series, the movie scored a rare victory over the novel.
The book focused on Charlie Bucket, the big-hearted boy who gets everything he ever wanted by simply doing everything he was supposed to do. The movie, however, has something other than itself to sell. It is, for all intents and purposes, the Willy Wonka story.
Movie Wonka is still an unorthodox gent. He subscribes to the philosophy that a good host keeps their guests on their toes--then, smashes said digits with the top of his walking cane. He won't raise a hand to help, but definitely (at least) one eyebrow to judge. He's fond of great literature (credit Seltzer for that character tic) and fond of letting people know of that fondness. Entrusted to a less-gifted actor, Willy Wonka could have been one of the most unbearably mannered people to ever breathe on screen.
Luckily for the entire world, Gene Wilder was cast in the title role. Decked out in plum velvet jacket, bowtie and brownish top hat (no goatee, though), he gives a captivating, cocksure performance. Is he mad? Is he kind? A genius, a fraud? Away from his domain, Wonka would be put away and studied. In his element, allowed to be himself, he makes the world taste a hell of a lot better.
Garrulous Yanks, nitwit Brits, and--wait for it--a gluttonous German. The child actors are all great (except the pest who plays Mike, who is merely good). Look virtually nothing, mind you, like Dahl's descriptions, but divergence from the source is not intrinsically negative. In the book, Veruca Salt is a walking wart draped in mink, blonde curls coiled atop her head. In the movie, she's played by perpetually gas-faced brunette Julia Dawn Cole and goddamn she takes the cake straight to the face like baby's first birthday. She was the only of the brats to get her own song (and dance, in a way) aaaannnd her harried father was played by Roy Kinnear, only one of the best reactors of his time.
The score, featuring tunes by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, is a temporary escape into the honey-cloud cover. Don't listen to me listen to "Pure Imagination." A song for any person who ever dreamed of opening their mind and impacting their world. And that's just the one example from a ebullient collection of music that has aged magnificently. Mostly.
"Cheer Up, Charlie" is often (justly) derided, even by those who love the movie, and director Mel Stuart requested it be excised from television airings. Free of charm, guile and melody, I gotta wonder why Stuart even allowed the damned thing to make the film proper?
The Oompa Loompa songs are completely different from the novel, but yep, that's a king cobra in your head. Never mind the graphics, 'twas the Seventies! Flared trouser and platform shoes! Safety pins in lieu of buttons and rocks in lieu of dogs! Maude! Cocaine!
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The TJMD Official Favorite Movie Ever. Over a span of nearly forty years, I have watched it nearly that many times. The absurdities tickle me without fail, the whimsy never feels disingenuous, and warmth spreads toes to nose every time, and by the end I'm overcome with the urge to wrench open the doors of the nearest sweets shack, walk up to the gormless register-ringer and demand (in as clear and concise a voice as can be managed considering the dire circumstances): "Your candies. Give them to me. Now."
There are three distinct visions of the factory: Dahl's, Stuart's and the reader's. The factory as portrayed here is a bizarre, improbable wonderland of wondrous wonder, yet the limitations faced by the filmmakers ensured that another vision of the factory can still comfortably exist inside the head space of anyone who's read the novel. You will not see any pipe-like tunnels, no underground rooms running a hundred yards in length. There are still chocolate rivers (how many people, ya think, wound up biting down on chocolate seasoned with krank fetten Jungen?), giant edible mushrooms, balls full of goo, lickable wallpaper (that exists for the movie Wonka to drop a killer William O'Shaughnessy quote and avoid explaining a dick joke to a very young girl). Those weirdo singing midgets.
The inclusion of Fizzy-Lifting Drink ruffled Dahl's feathers, since it made Charlie seem no different from those other naughty children (the crudity of the scenario--"Burp or die!" essentially--might also have offended his sensibilities), but it lends the film a tension that the novel lacked, and if a movie isn't lifting butts from seats even just the tiniest bit, what is it doing?
The best additions to the story are those scenes of Charlie in school, for giving actor David Battley a chance to dazzle audiences as Mr. Turkentine, an English teacher who is in fact a Math teacher. Every line he utters is fantastic, since they were intended to be uttered by someone with a variant of the English accent.
Has to be said once more before I go: Gene Wilder is a revelation. More actors should study his performance here, then promptly quit acting. I give him a 98.6 out of 100.
Soooo...is it better in your head? Holy shit was this close. I mean you couldn't pass a baby hair through this gap. The book is better. You know what did it? The skippable parts. In the novel, you can go without the Prince Pondicherry chapter. In the movie, "Cheer Up Charlie." Difference being, the tale of Prince Pondicherry is filler, yet fun. Whereas "Cheer Up Charlie" is so depressing I wonder if it was written as some grand piss-take.
MIND THE GAP
I didn't even mention the boat ride! Oh sweet face of Jesus on a hot cross bun, the boat ride!
"Are you hip to the jive? Can you dig what I'm laying down?"
Oh, it's a fine one. I'm not referring to this movie. I'm referring to the line between "quirky" and "quit doing whatever you are doing before I grab a thing and force you to stop whatever you are doing."
A remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had little chance to be anything other than strenuously annoying. So, director Tim Burton vowed that his vision would be much closer in spirit to Dahl's work. He and his creative cohorts proceeded with the mindset that the 1976 movie did not even exist. Which is pretty fuckin' extreme, a major red flag, DANGER DANGER, do not approach the man in the white panel van, all that.
Among the superstars considered for the role: Jim Carrey, Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Nicolas Cage. Only two of them could have pulled the hat off, and I'm not saying who.
The role eventually went to Johnny Depp. With a look inspired by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Depp's Wonka certainly qualifies as a well-groomed eccentric: black top hat, plum velvet jacket, purple latex gloves, sunglasses. And, for whatever it's worth, Depp's delivery is closer to book Willy's high-pitched voice. How does he compare to Wilder? He doesn't. Imagine Depp in the scene where Veruca goes ape in the Egg Sorting Room, specifically the part where she throws wrapping paper at Wonka. Wilder just stands there, the picture perfect of insouciance, just waiting for the spoiled little brat to fall into the furnace already. Depp would have yelped and leaped back a half a foot. At least.
Consider, also, each man's first impression. Depp's Wonka subjects his captive audience to a puppet show from the off-Broadway equivalent of Hell. Wilder's Wonka faked a limp to mess with everyone's heads.
Whatever Depp was thinking, he should have thought again, thought one more time, then walked off the set. His Wonka is a hollowed-out manchild who seems to loathe his target audience (whereas Wilder's candy man simply detested disobedience and disrespect). "Pure Imagination"? I don't want within sneezing distance of this prissy sociopath's imagination. Scene after scene, he acts like a child standing on his head, stripped to his skivvies, volubly demanding your total attention. (I suppose Dahl would find this obtuse candy man sufficiently gay and bouncy?)
What of the rest?
Thirty years later, special effects evolved to the point where Tim Burton could make a chocolate factory that looked like a monolithic death trap. The choco river is a vast improvement over the first film, as it looks like someone could brave a drink from it without fear of infection. But beyond that..where's the warmth?
The kids? If we must. Violet is blonde here, competitive as ever. (She is so not here to make friends.) Her mother is a vacuous, perky woman who wonders if the candy man in fact can. Charlie is a saint-like optimist who is so familien uber alles that he facilitates the reconciliation between Wonka and his distant father! The chocolate factory will definitely be a step up from the shanty that he currently lives in, just as that shanty was a step up from the cornfield!
I won't lie; I quite like this Mike Teevee. He is a boy of two moods: ticked-off and pissed-off. A YouTube review channel is in that fella's future fa sho.
There is no besting Mr. Salt, so Burton doesn't try. The Gloops look like Hummels. Augustus eating part of his golden ticket is a bit funny, but Dad biting the head off of a microphone in the first film? Gut-buster. The parents here just don't matter. And that's a shame.
The music? Piss off, Elfman, I shan't permit you to triumph!
"Wonka's Welcome Theme" is a theme park-style ditty that would have resulted in my pulling my hair completely off the scalp, were I not such an ardent fan of my illustrious natural waves. Each child (bar Charlie, of course) gets a different style of song when they shuffle off to whatever unsavory part of the factory, which is a nice idea, but only Mike's 80s hard rock send-up is even remotely memorable. The Oompa Loompa songs, snatched straight from the book, lack charm.
I wonder where Danny Elfman places on Kim Gordon's list of "Top 10 Things I Regret Doing."
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Narration. Did I mention the narration? Forgivable, barely, and only because the voice belongs to the once-and-forever Baron Samedi.
Casting Christopher Lee as Wonka's stern, grim-faced father doesn't change this plain fact: that backstory is (nicely) superfluous and (bluntly) bullshit. Willy Wonka is supposed to be a man of mystery; that enhances the character's appeal. What are his motivations, does he have any hobbies, where does he come from, where does he want to end up--these are questions the engaged audience should be asking, and they should never receive answers.
No Slugworth (meh), no Fizzy-Lifting Drink (eh). We get to see a few of the kids exiting the factory once the tour is officially over, wow, thanks for staying true to the source, Timmy. That added much to the experience. The first film didn't show them, and I dig that. It allows me to pretend that the Oompa Loompas accidentally snapped Mike in half. The sequence with Prince Pondicherry and the chocolate palace is also from the book, and reminds me why I call Tim Burton's filmography "the Taj Mahal of cinema"--gorgeous and useless. (In the novel, Pondicherry's folly earned its own chapter, and served as both cautionary tale and example of Wonka's unparalleled skills with the sweet stuff.)
Some things were too good to alter, such as all the grandparents in a single bed, and the boat ride. In both films, the hoax golden ticket is the fifth and final. (In Dahl's book, it's the second. Movies need their drama in a certain place at a certain time. Books have options.) And the faithful moments weren't all bad; I really admire that the squirrels used in the Nut Sorting Room were real.
MIND THE GAP
Homer Simpson's last two words as he falls into a black hole come to mind.
If Tim Burton were half as audacious a filmmaker as his fanbase fancies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could have wound up a quite fine way to pass the time.
Different types of cheeks deserve different types of slaps. Normally, I'd hesitate to strike too harsh a blow to so gaunt a face, but listen, Burton and co. tried to make the world forget about my favorite movie ever, sooooo I hope I cracked bone. I hope it is a soft-meal life for a month at least.