Wonka’s Many Flavors

This is one of those very rare posts where I talk about movies. It’s a combination of things, really – I’ve lately been on a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory kick, having just read the book, and (in a rare fit of something) watched both of the movies based on that book back to back. The contrasts are quite interesting.

First off, I love the book. It’s zany, it’s light, it’s deep, it’s funny, it’s classic. It’s the sort of thing I wonder how I made it this far in life without. This naturally colors my perception, so keep that in mind.

I like the second movie best. (For clarity, I will refer to the first movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as “the first movie”. I will refer to the recently released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp, as “the second movie”. It would be terribly confusing to refer to the movies by their rather similar titles, necessitating a note about which one Johnny Depp is in every time to make sure everyone understands, and also noting when I’m actually talking about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the book vs. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the movie.)

As I was saying, I like the second movie best. And no, not because Johnny Depp is in it. (Though I do think he’s a very good actor and does a generally better job than Gene Wilder, but we’ll get to that later.) It’s a combination of things, really, partially due to technology differences between 1971 and 2005, but also casting and general story line.

The first obvious difference is casting. Just to hit on a couple major points: I really have nothing against Peter Ostrum, but he just doesn’t look like a poor kid who’s practically starving. He looks like he just walked out of some California Suburb and probably going surfing tomorrow, after he finishes his paper route. Mr. Bucket is also another notable figure, partly for his absence in the first movie, but also for his casting. He comes across very well as a young, but very tired and careworn man. The second Grampa Joe is also rather more effective in my opinion. Much more the wizened old man one would expect to have been in bed the last twenty years. The first is almost too young. (Never mind the fact that he might have been Einstein in another movie.)

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka also lacks some sort of pep. The image I constructed from the book is of a spry little man who can’t sit still, has a White Rabbit complex (So much to see! So little time! Hurry along, I’m Late! I’m Late!), is seemingly out of touch with much of reality and happily naive. Mr. Wonka from the first movie (that’s Gene Wilder) seems slightly lethargic in comparison. Humorously oddball, yes, but a little to far up in the clouds somewhere. The second Mr. Wonka (that’s Johnny Depp) is a little more odd and less kindly, but comes across as less of a polite mad scientist with A.D.D. and more of a mental case with a really bad haircut. He also seemed more rather more nervous about the things happening to the kids. I can understand some of that – who wouldn’t be nervous if someone got pushed down your garbage chute by your squirrels – but my ink & paper mental image smiles and nods politely and does what little it can to help deal with consequences. The whole thing is (partially) rigged, anyhow. Oh, and what’s up with the flashcards? Chalk one up for the world-class-mental/weirdo nomination. Happy mediums are elusive things.

The technology, however, really helped with things in general for the second movie. Quite frankly, a lot of the first movie’s factory innards were rather lame. Brown water don’t pass for very good chocolate in my book, and you think that waterfall is the source for the world’s supply of Wonka Bars? Colossal and Vast and Fantastic are supposed to describe the factory of Mr. Wonka, not Boston Flower Show, amazing as it is. I also have problems with the the boat, it’s so very…er…unimpressive. (We’re working on the colossal and fantastic, remember?) I’m sorry to say this, but that bell (when the boat first appears) brought back images of Mr. Roger’s Trolley and Mr. Roger’s Trolley was better. Never mind that the tunnel scene is just plain out of place weird. Oh, and I almost expected the Everlasting Gobstopper machine to start churning out sock puppets or something – never have I seen such a hilariously ridiculous machine, covered totally in a custom cloth cover, with that goofy pink thing sproinging into the air.

Somehow, story lines are always the first victims of script writers or movie producers or whoever does these sorts of things. The changes in the first movie amounted primarily to the Everlasting Gobstopper Plot Device, which, in my humble opinion, was quite unnecessary. I don’t really see any problems with the original plot. (There was also a notable absence of the Great Glass Elevator, but I relinquish the benefit of the doubt as far as technical feasibility.) The changes in the second movie were mostly Willy’s history, in the form of flashbacks. Which also affected the end but provided some extra food for thought. The literary purist in me rankles at the liberty. The other side of me, however, really appreciates the way it was done. (I will also admit that the puppet scene is another case where I enjoy the book for what it is and the movie for what it is.) While I don’t think adding in Willy’s childhood and Father really adds a whole lot to the story (aside from providing a terribly convenient reason for Willy to be in the Candy business), it does add an interesting dimension in the comparison of relationships between Charlie’s family and Willy’s. (That’s a whole ‘nother post, however.) I’m not so sure about the end, though, they could still move to the factory. That, however, is just my two cents worth, through a lens of Ink & Dead Trees.