CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY - HD DVD review

It will never replace the older movie in my affections, but it has enough good moments to pass an enjoyable two hours.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

OK, I give up. I've been holding out giving any high-resolution disc a 10/10 for video quality until now, but I can't imagine an image showing up any better than this on my TV. So, here it is: a 10/10, the best-looking HD-DVD I've seen yet. I'm not saying it's perfect, mind you, nothing is, and there are some shortcomings that I'll explain later; but at the moment it's at least among the best we've got.

More important than the looks of the film, though, is the question of why in the world any filmmaker in his right mind would want to mess around with an acknowledged movie classic. Especially a filmmaker who had already had limited success with a remake of "Planet of the Apes"? I suppose the answer lies only with the filmmaker himself, Tim Burton, who is admittedly a little peculiar; and when he's got his favorite actor, Johnny Depp, and his favorite composer, Danny Elfman, working with him, the temptation to redo an old hit must have been irresistible

Anyone over the age of five is obviously going to compare the new 2005 version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" with the older 1971 movie, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Probably only a filmmaker with Burton's imagination, creativity, ability, temperament, and supreme confidence would put himself in the position of allowing people to make such a comparison.

In any case, the two films, both based on Roald Dahl's best-selling children's novel, are really quite different while still being quite a bit alike. I love the older version as much as anyone, and probably like you I sort of resented Tim Burton's thinking he could improve upon it. Which is just the point: Burton doesn't improve upon it. Instead, he reinterprets it.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is the first film I've gone to in years where a good part of the theater audience applauded at the end. And it was a large audience for a matinee show, made up of a diverse mix of ages from children through teens and adults. This is not to suggest, however, that the audience positively thought Burton's movie was better than the older version; the applause may simply have been a sign of relief that Burton hadn't screwed things up.

Sure, I missed the old songs, and I missed Gene Wilder as Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie and Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe. No one could replace them. But the new actors in the roles acquit themselves nicely, especially young Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland") as Charlie. Indeed, the whole first third of the film, the story of the destitute Bucket family, comes off pretty much the same as in the earlier version, almost identical in tone, with a little more background on the father losing his job at a toothpaste factory and the exclusion of several musical numbers.

You remember the plot: Willy Wonka owns the biggest candy factory on the planet, and he offers five lucky winners of a golden ticket (hidden somewhere in his Wonka Bars) a personally guided tour through his plant, with one of the five winners getting an extra-special gift.

The five winners, all children, who visit the factory are Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), a fat, spoiled kid who eats candy continuously; Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), the whiney, spoiled daughter of a wealthy British nut packer; Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), the arrogant, spoiled daughter of an American Barbie Doll; Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), a surly, spoiled video-game player; and our young hero, the unassuming Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore). They and the one guest they are each allowed to bring with them are in for the adventure of a lifetime.

While the special effects are better than ever in Burton's version, I didn't find the interior of the chocolate factory any more magical or spectacular than in the old movie; and even though I enjoyed actor Deep Roy playing all of the Oompa-Loompas (through the magic of computer duplication), I did not find Danny Elfman's music doing much for me. Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but there was nothing in the new musical numbers to match the catchy innocence of the "Candy Man" or the old Oompa-Loompa songs. I'd be willing to bet that very few people who had just seen the new movie could hum or whistle even a couple of notes from any but maybe a single song. Still, Elfman's music is adequate and up-to-date, and I'm undoubtedly making a relatively minor beef of the issue.

The big point of contention for most viewers, whether they've seen the older version or not, will be Johnny Depp's portrayal of Wonka. It's just plain bizarre. Depp's Wonka is horrified at the touch of children and cringes at the very thought of parents, his strange behavior and quirky mannerisms explained only at the end of the story. He's comes off as a cross between Michael Jackson and Tom Hulce's Amadeus. Ironically, while the first movie had Willy Wonka's name in the title, it was largely about Charlie. Now that Burton has used Roald Dahl's original title and Charlie's name is back in it, the movie is more about Willy Wonka. In the new rendering, Wonka is given a background story through a number of flashbacks, plus an entire concluding episode all to himself. We learned nothing of Wilder's Wonka character in the first movie and only a little of Charlie's. We learn no more about Charlie in this new version than in the previous one, either, but we learn a heck of a lot more about Wonka. What's more, once the story introduces Depp's Wonka into the new story, the movie is all his; the boy and the grandfather practically disappear from our thoughts.

Notwithstanding some odd reactions during seemingly stressful moments, Wilder's Wonka remained ever the gentle, amiable, twinkling character throughout, with the exception of a brief moment at the end when he pretended to be angry. Yet Depp's Wonka seems genuinely conflicted. Being shut away from people for so long, he is unable to relate to them in normal terms, his behavior so erratic he resorts to reading his comments to people from note cards prepared in advance, and his language is so time warped it's still framed in the verbal expressions of his youth: "Groovy," "Keep on truckin'". Therefore, to me Depp's Willy Wonka is the central figure in the new movie, much more so than Wilder was in the first film. And by the end of the new movie, it's Wonka's character that has transformed as a result of his experiences, not Charlie's. It's true that Charlie's circumstances change, but not his personality.

In addition, it is good to see longtime movie villain Christopher Lee in the new movie as Wonka's father. Lee is an ageless wonder and seems to get better as the years go by. He's certainly landing as many high-profile parts as ever before, his having appeared in "Star Wars," "The Lord of the Rings," and this movie in the past few years alone.

None of which makes the new film any better or any worse than the older version, just, as I say, different. I found Burton's film more episodic than the older one, though, a condition inherent to a lot of children's stories, with things jumping from one event to another in simple succession. This seems to fit Burton's style, as most often things appear on screen that probably just struck the director's fancy. Fair enough. It makes the pacing a tad jerky (and oddly slack, too), but almost every scene seems to reveal some new wonder. The nut-sorting room is especially cute, with real squirrels separating the good nuts from the bad ones (bad nuts in this new movie replace the bad eggs of the older movie, another scene somebody told me is closer to the book), and the "puppet hospital and burn center" is humorously macabre.

Burton's ending tends to go on too long, and as sweet and winsome as it may be, it appears anticlimactic. Nevertheless, my concerns are few, and this new "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" makes for a splashy, eccentric movie treat. It will never replace the older movie in my affections, but it has enough good moments to pass an enjoyable two hours.

Video:
Now, here's the thing: While I think this disc has one of the best HD-DVD images, if not the best, I've ever seen, I didn't think the standard-definition disc was all that great. Not that the SD transfer was at fault, but the director had purposely shrouded the first third of the film in the dullest possible shades of grays, blacks, and browns, so there wasn't much color there, at least at first, and then he purposely lighted up later scenes almost too brightly. Moreover, many scenes looked rather glassy, a condition that only worsened as the director's brighter tones came into play.

The general appearance of Burton's film remains the same on HD-DVD, but now I have to change my assessment of how it comes across on disc. While the colors continue to look muted in the beginning of the film and too bright later on, the definition and detail of the HD-DVD are so good that the film is joy to look at. Burton fills every frame with a multitude of tiny particulars, and they show up in pinpoint focus. More important, faces display a multitude of nuances; just look closely at Grandpa Joe's facial features, his lines and wrinkles, so well delineated and realistic you'd think you could reach out, touch him, and feel his whiskers. Yes, there is still a bit too much glassy brightness as the film proceeds, but it's part and parcel of the movie.

Audio:
This time out Warner Bros. present the sound in Dolby Digital Plus 51. It is not spectacular sound, but the DD+ does a better job than the standard edition's regular Dolby Digital 5.1. Interestingly, in comparison the new DD+ seems lower in gain, a few decibels lower, than the DD 5.1. Yet it displays a greater clarity and subtlety, appearing to open up the rear channels more. There still isn't a very big dynamic range or much deep bass, but that is probably a condition of the movie's original audio. I saw this movie in a theater and don't remember being overwhelmed by the sound there, either. Also, by comparison the regular DD 5.1 seems brighter and more garish, the DD+ more open and more natural. I'm only sorry there was no Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, just the music-only track listed below.

Extras:
The extras include a few things not contained in the standard-resolution Two-Disc Deluxe Edition. The most important of these are an "In-Movie Experience" where Tim Burton, the actors, and the filmmakers share a wealth of information with us via picture inserts on-screen as the movie plays. As the narrator (Geoffrey Holder) says, it's information all "jumbled together like a mouthful of candy." Then there's an audio commentary with director Tim Burton that was oddly missing from the Deluxe Edition. Several more things you don't find on the Deluxe Edition menu (although they might be among the Easter Eggs, I don't know) are two pre-visualizations: "Augustus Gloop Dance" and "Mike Teavee Dance," each about two minutes long, done up mostly in CGI; a European club reel, a short dance-music video; and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 music-only track showcasing the music of Danny Elfman that makes one wish the audio engineers had done up the whole soundtrack in TrueHD. It is smoother still than the DD+ track, if at an even lower gain, perhaps to accommodate a wider dynamic range. Oh, well....

Then, repeated from the previous edition, there's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Chocolate Dreams," seven minutes of interviews and behind-the-scenes bits; "Different Faces, Different Flavors," ten minutes on characters and casting; "Designer Chocolate," nine minutes on costume and set design; "Under the Wrapper," seven minutes on visual effects; "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Sweet Sounds," seven minutes on composer Danny Elfman's music; "Becoming Oompa-Loompa," seven minutes on how the filmmakers turned actor Deep Roy into hundreds of Oompa-Loompas; "Attack of the Squirrels," nine minutes on how the filmmakers used live squirrels, puppet squirrels, and CGI squirrels to create the nut-sorting scene; and "Fantastic Mr. Dahl," a seventeen-minute biography of the late Roald Dahl, using interviews with his family and friends and vintage footage of Dahl himself.

What you won't find (or I couldn't find) on the HD-DVD are the Deluxe Edition's games, the "Oompa-Loompa Dance," "The Inventing Machine," "The Bad Nut," and "Search for the Golden Ticket." I wasn't disappointed at their absence so much as curious why they weren't there. (For all I know they could be among the items in the "In-Movie Experience," though I doubt it; I didn't watch all of it.)

The extras wrap up with thirty-two scene selections, but no chapter insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. As always, Warner Bros. also include pop-up menus, an indicator of elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
The Wife-O-Meter and I both agreed the new "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is quite different from the older "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" but not necessarily better. It's best to view the two films as entirely separate entities that just happen to share the same characters and plot. The difference in the personality of Willy Wonka alone is startling enough to make a person forget one or the other character. Yet my wife and I agreed that there is a greater warmth in the older movie, a captivating charm that is hard to beat, as well as a better forward pace. Although it may simply be nostalgia, a sentimental attachment to something that's been around for so long, our affection for the older film was not enough to keep us from appreciating Burton's new effort. I'm sure we will have the two movies on the shelf, side by side, for a very long time, especially now that they are both available in HD.

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
8
Extras
7
Film Value
7