Cream-faced loon in rubbery purple gloves

In this week’s New Yorker, Anthony Lane rips apart Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, comparing the film unfavorably with Roald Dahl’s novel:

The role of the mock villain is taken by Willy Wonka himself, and, in the book, we heartily concur with the penalties that he inflicts; Violet does deserve to be inflated into a giant blueberry, the acidic little brat. But what if the perpetrator is Johnny Depp? And what if he dresses like Oscar Wilde, smiles like Michael Jackson, enunciates like Tootsie, and wears rubbery purple gloves to keep away the germs? Where does moral tutelage end and sadistic farce begin? There is an Old World courtesy to Dahl’s Wonka that is abandoned by the film; he now retorts to overtures of friendship (“I’m Violet Beauregarde”) with a venomous “I don’t care.” He is what Macbeth would call a cream-faced loon, and far more of a child than the actual children around him. There is no doubt that he despises them, and that raises questions as to why he has lured them, with promises of candy, into his edible home.

I suspect that Depp has gone to these unappetizing lengths because he fears that, without a handful of spice in the mix, the movie might overdose on whimsy. Depp is getting used to these mercy missions, having realized that eyeliner alone could stop “Pirates of the Caribbean” from sinking into period heartiness. He is right to worry, because “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is surprisingly unwild…. You don’t know what treat is coming next, but you know that it will be succulent and strange, and that very knowledge starts to dull the edge of your enjoyment, as if it were coating your tongue….

This is not so in the novel, and for one good reason: Roald Dahl was a man of speed. His imagination was as fat as a pig, but his literary method was lean. In an early draft of the book, fifteen children entered the factory; he tested the result on a young relative, who pronounced it “rotten”; in the end, only the five made the cut. As for the opening chapter, “Here Comes Charlie,” it’s one of the most efficient scene-setters since the start of “Great Expectations,” with a compound of impoverishment and yearning so sharp that it pricks the senses, like vinegar. (And it’s still not as quick as “James and the Giant Peach,” which kills off a couple of parents in thirty-five seconds flat.) Dahl inherited from Dickens a direct feed into the terrors and wishful thinkings of the young.


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