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The Burton Binge: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

by on September 2, 2012
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Each Sunday with “The Burton Binge,” Sam Watermeier will look back at one of Tim Burton’s films, ultimately tracing the return to the auteur’s roots with the October 5 release of “Frankenweenie,” an animated adaptation of Burton’s first live-action short film.

When Tim Burton falls from grace, he falls fast.

Burton’s devolution is evident from the opening frames of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

In a title sequence similar to the one in “Edward Scissorhands,” we see sweets rolling down a factory assembly line. But unlike the charmingly crude, hand-constructed factory in “Scissorhands,” the one here is cold and inorganic.

Sadly, that description doesn’t only apply to the visual effects. This film completely lacks the warm sense of wonder that its source material evokes. Its world and inhabitants are simply off-putting.

As played by Johnny Depp, chocolatier Willy Wonka is a mean, self-indulgent little kid who never grew up. He seems to resent children despite making a product for them. In turn, his behavior lessens the emotional impact of poor little Charlie’s (Freddie Highmore) hopeful visit to the factory. (Highmore is the beating heart of this otherwise cold film.)

While the film certainly supports Burton’s ongoing thesis that “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” the movie will only make you want to remain an outsider to its world. Wonka’s demeanor and his factory’s downright creepy nature make the tour uncomfortable for viewers.

In that regard, the film contradicts Burton’s previous work, “Big Fish,” which regards fantasy worlds just as highly as reality. And oddly enough, it’s penned by the same screenwriter, John August.

Here, Burton and August seem to suggest that worlds of childlike wonder may not be so great after all, which is certainly an edgy direction. But they fail to make the titular setting seductive enough to initially suggest otherwise. Therefore, there is no tension in the film, nothing preventing viewers from leaving the factory. Sadly, Burton can’t even reel them in with visuals.

It’s disheartening how easily Burton can surrender to a big budget or, more accurately, to technology. While his early visions (hell, even “Planet of the Apes”) are tangible and impossibly organic, much of his more recent work is coldly computer-generated. And nothing is more disturbing than when a visual artist loses his eye for beauty.

I’m not sure why Burton feels compelled to continue returning to well-known properties after gaining far more acclaim with more personal work. His best films are easily “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” and “Big Fish,” yet he keeps trying to achieve the blockbuster magic of “Batman.” For a director who has spent much of his career trying to prove himself a rebel, he seems to be selling out rather quickly, jumping into projects that match his sensibilities all too obviously.

But “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” isn’t just disappointing in comparison to Burton’s other work. This movie is bad, period. And it’s unpleasant in precisely the same way the factory tour is for the characters — an excruciatingly long journey from which there seems to be no escape; it’s especially laborious during the Oompa Loompas’ musical numbers.

Fortunately, Burton picked himself up and dusted himself off for his next effort, “Corpse Bride,” a prime, vintage Burton film I will discuss next week.