The Candy Man Can’t: What Is Johnny Depp Up To?

Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, from a screenplay by John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl, left me completely stupefied. Granted, this movie was never intended for a cranky, childless, curmudgeonly moviegoer like me. Still, I wonder if even children will respond to the peculiarly humorless and charmless stylistic eccentricities of Mr. Burton and his star, Johnny Depp, as Willy Wonka, owner of the world’s largest and most mysterious chocolate factory. The moment Mr. Depp first appeared on the screen, in close proximity to five children who had won a worldwide contest to visit Willy’s chocolate factory, I wondered if he was going to perform a prolonged parody of Michael Jackson in Neverland. But Mr. Depp kept shifting gears so often that his character never gelled into anything psychologically coherent.

I never saw the first movie version of the Dahl book, Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, but I suspect that Mr. Wilder’s child-like craziness was better suited to the Dahlian brand of strenuous whimsy than Mr. Depp’s deadpan virtuosity. I am aware there’s been a recent revival of interest in Dahl’s writings for children, so I went out and purchased the new Borzoi Book edition published by Alfred A. Knopf, which features what are described on the cover as “two classics by Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.”

On the back is a Quentin Blake illustration with the following announcement: “Mr. Willy Wonka, the candy-making genius whom nobody has seen for the last ten years, sent out the following notice today: I, Willy Wonka, have decided to allow five children—just five, mind you, and no more—to visit my factory this year. These lucky five will be shown around personally by me, and they will be allowed to see all the secrets and the magic of my factory. Then, at the end of the tour, as a special present, all of them will be given enough chocolates and candies to last them the rest of their lives!”

The joke, of course, is that only one of the five, Charlie, is anything less than totally awful, and he ends up getting a fantastic prize. What puzzles me a little is why the first film in 1971 was called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, especially given that the screenplay was written by Dahl himself. Was that the original title of the book? And if so, why was it changed for Mr. Burton’s movie and the new Knopf edition?

Mind you, I’m not complaining: Charlie Bucket is a splendid child hero, especially as played so winningly here by Freddie Highmore, who was equally effective opposite Mr. Depp in the much more felicitous Finding Neverland (2004). Indeed, the only charm in the film comes right at the beginning, when we are first introduced to Charlie and the rest of the Bucket family in their amiably ramshackle dwelling, in which Charlie and his parents are forced to sleep in virtually the same room, because both sets of Charlie’s grandparents are bedridden day and night in the main part of the house. Mr. Burton and his staff of set designers and art directors outdo themselves here: The shack glows with the inner warmth of a desperately impoverished but emotionally cohesive family.

The sociological subtexts proliferate from the outset. Charlie’s father, Mr. Bucket (Noah Taylor), has lost his boring, low-paying job on an assembly line—fastening the caps on toothpaste tubes—because this task, like those performed by many other workers, can be taken over by a machine. Without his meager salary, the whole Bucket family comes close to starvation, but from the oldest to the youngest, they soldier on cheerfully, with Mrs. Bucket (the estimable and too-long-unseen Helena Bonham Carter) holding the family together as a veritable Mother Courage.

Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) is the grandparent closest to Charlie, and in his youth worked in the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory—until he and all his co-workers were fired to make way for the Oompa Loompa, a tree-dwelling tribe of little people recruited from the jungle by Willy in his adventurous youth (and all played by the same actor, Deep Roy, though the seamless special effects become increasingly wearisome in one mediocre song-and-dance number after another). When Charlie becomes the fifth child to get a golden Willy Wonka ticket, Grandpa Joe insists on escorting him to the factory.

(I should add here, parenthetically, that Mr. Dahl is vague about where his stories take place. He is clearly writing for an Anglo-American audience, which may explain the occasional inconsistencies about currency. In the Knopf book, Charlie finds a dollar bill in the snow that he uses to buy the chocolate bar with the golden ticket, after which people in the shop offer him $50 and $500 for the ticket; but previously, Grandpa Joe gives Charlie a gold coin that seems more like British specie than American with which to buy a chocolate bar—though that one turns out to be unlucky.)

Meanwhile, four of the most obnoxious children in creation are shown winning the first four prizes. The gluttonous Augustus Gloop is the first winner, and he is made to seem pointedly Germanic in the movie, introduced against a background of sausage strings. Dahl has been criticized in the past for the colonialist implications of the Oompa Loompas, and it may be a stretch to blame him for the streak of anti-Teutonism in Mr. Burton’s pointed depiction of Augustus Gloop—but in any event, after the Blitz, who could begrudge him a bit of Germanophobia?

The second winner is an odious girl named Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), who is all “I want, I want, I want!” with her pushover father, Mr. Salt (James Fox). He happens to own a peanut factory with many workers, to whom he assigns the task of unwrapping thousands of chocolate bars until they find the winning ticket for his little darling. The casting of Mr. Fox makes the girl seem a member of the British upper class. The third winner is Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), an incessantly gum-chewing caricature of an American brat with a fatuously motherly Mrs. Beauregarde to match. The fourth winner has been updated from the book’s television freak, Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry), to a video-game freak with a sympathetically nonplused father (Adam Godley). Indeed, Mr. Burton and Mr. August tend to go rather easier on the fathers than the mothers in their gloss on Dahl’s already chilling distaste for much of humanity.

Even more questionable is the addition of a back story for Willy Wonka himself involving a sensible dentist-father (Christopher Lee) who tried to save his son’s teeth by burning all of his Halloween chocolate. A traumatized little Willy (Blair Dunlop) is estranged from his father, despite a later, embarrassingly tearful reunion in the dentist’s chair that seems to tax Mr. Depp’s last resistance to being terminally creepy.

It’s no surprise that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has earned a PG rating. Even so, there is one peculiar interlude in which a horde of squirrels clamber all over Veruca Salt’s clothed body before dragging her off to a garbage chute. It’s all in the book, but I can’t help wondering what Dahl had in mind with that quasi-pornographic image of squirrels roaming over a little girl’s body. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the indispensable contributions of Liz Smith as Grandma Georgina, Eileen Essell as Grandma Josephine, David Morris as Grandpa George and Geoffrey Holder as the narrator. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with the entire ensemble (largely British)—they give it everything they have, but they ultimately have no chance against Mr. Burton’s muddled and affectless mise-en-scène.

Cultural Literacy Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, from a screenplay by Mr. Dai and Nadine Perront, based on his novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, continues the Chinese invasion of our American art-film sensibilities, but in a more benign manner than the burgeoning trade war between our two countries would suggest. Actually, though the film was shot in China, it was produced mostly through the auspices of the French film industry (the director has lived in France for the past 21 years). It is, to a large extent, Mr. Dai’s own story that is being told in the film, but its cultural resonances tend to bind us together—East and West—rather than tear us apart.

Mr. Dai was born in 1954 in the Chinese province of Fujian. He was sent to Sichuan to be re-educated from 1971 to 1974 during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. When he was freed, he went back to high school until 1976. After Mao’s death, Mr. Dai took art-history courses at a Chinese university and then, having been awarded a scholarship, went to France in 1984. He entered IDHEC (the French film school) and later directed his first short film in China.

China, My Sorrow won the Jean Vigo award in 1989; Mr. Dai followed this up with Le Mangeur de Lune in 1994 and The Eleventh Child in 1998. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (released in Europe in 2002) was adapted from his largely autobiographical first novel, which was published by Gallimard. A best-seller during the winter of 2000, the book sold 250,000 copies in France, won many awards and has been translated into 25 languages—except Chinese.

Indeed, though Mr. Dai received permission to film the adaptation in China after long negotiations with the Chinese authorities, he hasn’t been allowed to show the film there. According to the director, the original objections to the film being shot in China had little or nothing to do with the subject of the Cultural Revolution, and everything to do with the script’s perceived caricatures of party leaders in this period, as well as the fact that the lives of the characters are changed by foreign works of literature and not Chinese literary classics. Of course there are Chinese literary classics, Mr. Dai concedes, but these focused on the exploits of emperors and other aristocrats, while the foreign works covered a wider swath of humanity.

The film begins in a backward mountainous region where two teenage, urban-bred best friends, Luo (Kun Chan) and Ma (Ye Liu), have been sent for Maoist re-education. The sons of “reactionary intellectuals,” the two are compelled to perform backbreaking manual labor along with the equally oppressed local inhabitants under the supervision of the ever-suspicious headman (Shuangbao Wang).

One day, when a violin is discovered in Ma’s luggage, the headman demands that he play some music. When Ma mentions Mozart, the headman storms against this “foreigner”—until Ma discreetly identifies the piece as “Mozart Listening to Mao.” The headman relents, upon which the truly magical melodies of Mozart float over the countryside, evoking bewitched expressions from the naive inhabitants. This is the first intimation of the cultural transcendence and transformation that Luo and Ma are going to introduce in the camp through the siren songs of the West—first through the music of Mozart, and then through the novels of Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Dumas, Stendahl and others.

Luo and Ma learn to exploit their literacy among their illiterate neighbors by performing small services for the headman. He sends them to a nearby town to watch politically correct movies from Albania and North Korea so that they can describe them to the other members of their collective. On one such visit, they encounter a group of young girls bathing in a lake. After being somewhat embarrassingly discovered, the two boys first encounter the person who will be the single great love of both their lives, a beautiful young girl they christen “Little Chinese Seamstress.”

Later, they discover the cache of foreign books hidden in a cave by “Four Eyes,” a persecuted “intellectual” like them, and Luo begins courting the seamstress. He succeeds to the point of making her pregnant; then he has to leave because his father has taken ill. Ma, on the other hand, in love with the seamstress himself, is determined to stand by her, even to the point of negotiating an unlawful abortion for her. The seamstress is grateful to Ma, but she still loves Luo—though, in the end, she leaves them both, because the books they’ve been reading to her have taught her that the power of a woman’s beauty enables her to chart her own destiny. Luo tries desperately to find her, but Little Chinese Seamstress has vanished into the outside world that the great books of the West have given her the courage to confront.

As I was watching this drama unfold, I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of the Herculean efforts undertaken by these characters to circumvent the authorities—all to avail themselves of literary treasures sitting unread by young people in America today in libraries across the country. I was struck also by the generous nuances with which Mr. Dai has recreated his own undeniably bitter experiences. Far from savagely caricaturing his onetime oppressors, he makes an effort to see the situation from their point of view. There is genuine adoration in the passion with which his camera gazes upon the less educated and less privileged among his country’s people. When he was once asked by an interviewer, “Are you now more French than Chinese?”, Mr. Dai replied: “I’ve lived more than 15 years in France, but my roots are in China. Yet I carry my pains around with me.”

There is more than a little pain in this film, but there is also much compassion, love and forgiveness. Its well-earned humanistic frissons should serve as a wake-up call for the great majority of American movies, with their inexhaustible supply of smugness and complacency—but it probably won’t. Don’t miss Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It will reverberate like an emotional echo on a mountainside.

La Cava! The Museum of Modern Art is presenting, from July 22 to Aug. 15, a comprehensive and long-overdue retrospective of the varied, mostly comic works of the writer, director and animator Gregory La Cava (1892-1952). La Cava was the one director besides Ernst Lubitsch to be renowned for his “touch” in such classic comedies as Stage Door (1937), My Man Godfrey (1936), The Half-Naked Truth (1932), 5th Ave Girl (1939), and What Every Woman Knows (1934).

In addition, the museum is also showing two animation programs featuring such classic comic-strip characters of the period as Krazy Kat, the Katzenjammer Kids, and Mutt and Jeff. In fact, La Cava began his film career in 1913 animating films for the Raoul Barre Studio—and, two years later, at the age of 24, was appointed head of the newly created animation studios at William Randolph Hearst Enterprises. He made his first feature film in 1921, His Nibs, starring Charles (Chic) Sale, Colleen Moore and Harry Edwards.

La Cava was the favorite director and drinking buddy of the legendary W.C. Fields. Though it’s hard to believe that Fields was funny in silent films, since his trademark voice and delivery were such a large part of his comic skills, the sheer hilarity of such Fields–La Cava silents as So’s Your Old Man (1926) and Running Wild (1927) proves otherwise.

If your taste runs to wisecracking dames, don’t miss Stage Door, with Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball handling the rapid-fire gag lines and Andrea Leeds supplying the flaming drama; My Man Godfrey, with Carole Lombard at her wackiest; The Half-Naked Truth, with Lupe Valez at her sexiest being promoted by the ever-ebullient Lee Tracy (whom Manny Farber once described as a better actor than Spencer Tracy); Mary Astor in Smart Woman; Claudette Colbert in She Married Her Boss; and Ginger Rogers in 5th Ave Girl.

And if you’re looking for startling post–Production Code sensuality, high on your list should be Preston Foster’s smooth seduction of Irene Dunne in Unfinished Business (1941) and Ginger Rogers escaping a family tradition of prostitution in Primrose Path (1940). With his background in cartooning, La Cava was often noted for drawing detailed sketches of his scenes before shooting—though he was, much like Leo McCarey, creatively addicted to improvisation. Let’s just say that Gregory La Cava has been shamefully underrated and neglected all along, and now is the time for some belated recognition.