Examining Hollywood Remakes: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

In the last article, we talked about how the choice of actors can improve a remake. Sometimes it’s not even a question of a good actor or a bad actor. It’s about the right actor, and the choices he/she makes in the role. In this week’s article, we focus on how the wrong actor can spoil a remake.

Ronald Dahl’s 1964 children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is the tale of a poor boy named Charlie who is one of several kids to win a golden ticket to tour the factory of reclusive millionaire chocolatier Willie Wonka. After experiencing some bizarre events in the factory, where the other kids misbehave and get taken away, Charlie learns that he has been chosen as Wonka’s heir. The story has spawned two cinematic treatments. The first was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) starring Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein, the Producers, Blazing Saddles, Silver Streak) and the second was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) starring Johnny Depp (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, the Pirates of the Caribbean films). The first has become a timeless children’s classic, with well-known songs, such as “The Candy Man” and “Imagination”. The remake, however, doesn’t measure up to the original. It’s not terrible but it is disappointing.

Why is the remake disappointing? It had a visionary director in Tim Burton, and a talented leading man in Johnny Depp. This duo has made a lot of good movies together. So how did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory end up falling short of the 1971 classic?

1 Wilder Wonka

Surprisingly, the problem here comes down to the acting, and the finger of blame points to Johnny Depp. Now, you’re probably saying, “Idiot! Johnny Depp is the greatest actor in the world! How can you blame him for ruining a movie?” Well, I am. While I’ve enjoyed many of Depp’s performances, especially when he is directed by Tim Burton, this film was made in Depp’s post-Pirates period. Ever since Depp got his Best Actor nomination as Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, he’s been locked into a comfort zone, displaying risk adverse choices in his acting. He’s been trying to recreate the Jack Sparrow magic ever since. Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, Sweeny Todd, Barnabas Collins, and even Tonto—all examples of comical, antisocial oddballs under pasty make-up, with weird hair. This is the Safe Zone that Depp slipped into when he was filming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In the 1971 version, Gene Wilder portrayed Willie Wonka as a complex, multi-layered character. He hid his bizarre nature behind a façade of genial calm. Wilder’s Wonka is charming and funny. You get the sense from him that he’s plotting something and he seems to be enjoying some private joke that no one else is in on, yet he’s still likable. He often shows his eccentricities but he balances them with his amiable nature. His dark side creeps out at times but then he covers it with a pleasant song or smile. Even when he loses his temper at the end, it’s all part of his calculated act. He seems to be manipulating everyone and everything and enjoying himself in the process. Wilder nails it perfectly.

Depp’s Wonka, on the other hand, is a blatant oddity who is completely unlikable. He says things to people that are insulting (“You smell of old”) and doesn’t even seem to like Charlie and the other children he invites to his factory. He winces when they try to be friendly with him and answers their introductions with “I don’t care”. (It’s strange he wouldn’t care about these kids since he invited them to pick an heir, so you’d think he’d have some interest.) His bizarre appearance makes you think that the Grim Reaper from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure stole the wardrobe of Judge Doom from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There are no layers to him under the oddness. He’s just odd.

Depp is not the only cast member of the remake who fails to meet up to the performance of his predecessor. Let’s look at the actors who play young Charlie. In the original, Charlie was played by Peter Ostrum. The 1971 Charlie seems more like a real, flesh-and-blood kid you might actually meet. He has his moods and can sometimes be a bit petulant, but he’s ultimately good hearted and his better nature wins out over his childish emotions. In the 2005 version, however, Charlie is played by Freddie Highmore, who portrays Charlie as some sort of saint-in-training. The kid is just too good and too wise for his age. He isn’t realistic. You don’t really believe that the words he is saying are coming from a boy. Of course, much of this is due to the writing, but that doesn’t change the fact that Highmore plays Charlie with a Vulcan-like calm and a high level of piousness. Sure, Burton had a lot to do with that but regardless, Ostrum did it a lot better than Highmore. Ostrum seemed like a real boy. Highmore seemed like he was in ‘the Young Buddha Chronicles’.

The supporting roles are all well played in both films. The visiting kids and their families have their own quirks and humorous moments in each version. Even old Uncle Joe is interesting in both films. (Jack albertson is probably a little bit better in the 1971 version.)

When it comes to the direction, I have to like Burton’s more creative visuals, but on the other hand, the 1971 director Mel Stuart does a better job creating a dichotomy between Charlie’s bland world at the beginning and the surreal world inside the Chocolate Factory. Also, the Oompa Loompas look more non-human and strange in the 1971 film. The music is much more memorable in Willie Wonka, whereas the music in the 2005 movie is mostly forgettable.

By most measures, the 1971 Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is better than the remake. That’s not to say that there’s nothing worthwhile in the 2005 version, but the star performances really let it down. There’s no denying that Depp has done some great work in the past but in this case, he got caught up in his habitual “Look-how-odd-I-am” Safe Zone performance. He only gives us a surface layer which is weird to look at but he never captures the subtle depths that the more mysterious Wilder version attains. Again, it’s not about Depp being a good or bad actor…it’s about finding the right actor, who makes the right choice in the role. Depp made the wrong choices here. Wilder made the right ones.

So that’s all for the fourth entry in our ongoing series, looking at Hollywood remakes. Next week, we’ll be back to dissect a good remake and see why it works.