Though the work of many modern authors have been likened to that of Grimm's fairy tales, very few actually earn the comparison. Then there is Roald Dahl. The late author of such classics as 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' 'James and the Giant Peach,' 'The Witches' and 'Matilda,' it is irrefutable that this guy had one seriously demented imagination. I am sure I'm not the only person who, as a child, suffered more than one nightmare after reading Dahl's novels and short stories. Though ostensibly whimsical adventure tales, Dahl's work always read more like horror stories to me. Especially 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' With its demented Willy Wonka, his terrifying chocolate-coated lair and the gruesome fates meted out to the unsuspecting protagonists, this was no 'Bambi' -- it was the first pre-teen slasher movie.
By now, everyone knows the story. Little Charlie Bucket and his family are as poor as a church mouse. They live in a dilapitated shack on the edge of town, with little to look forward to beyond a loaf of bread for dinner. But a golden ticket is about to come into Charlie's life -- the mysterious Willy Wonka is holding the contest of a lifetime, the prize a guided tour of his fabled chocolate factory. Though there can be only five lucky winners, fate intervenes and Charlie joins four other decidedly less wholesome tots in what seems like a rousing adventure. But will they survive Wonka's most unique tests of courage and character, or perish in bizarre ways? And just what is the prize waiting for Charlie behind Wonka's candy cane-colored walls, anyway?
Since just about everyone has seen the original 1971 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (it is an adolescent rite of passage up there with 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Showgirls'), watching Tim Burton's "reimagining" of 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is like a 115-minute comparison test. There are few surprises -- we know what is in store for our little contestants, and it ain't pretty -- so our memories of the original come into constant conflict with Burton's glossier, decidedly more surreal vision of the material. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but one thing that 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' isn't is fresh.
That said, Burton's changes to the material are numerous. Whereas 'Willy Wonka' was a musical (albeit one filled with black humor), it remained essentially lighthearted and fanciful. Burton's version feels less welcoming and far darker. He eliminates all the non-Oompa Loompa musical numbers, and hews far more closely to the book, which had an episodic structure with various flashbacks and narrative cul-de-sacs. The most significant addition he makes is to expand Willy Wonka's backstory. Burton has always been fascinated by the relationship of men with their fathers/mentors, and here Wonka gets a decidedly demented parental figure in the form of his dentist dad, Dr. Wonka (played by Christopher Lee). This shifts the film's primary thematic focus from Charlie to Wonka, which somewhat overstuffs the movie. (It also pays off poorly, as the film's ending is rather anticlimactic.) Ironically, the film achieves its greatest narrative tension out of our fear that Charlie's story is going to be swallowed whole by Burton's obsession with the neurotic Wonka.
Otherwise, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is largely successful in capturing the charm and wonderment of the original film while upgrading its technology for modern audiences. Visually, the film is magnificent. Technical credits across the board are top-notch, with production design impeccable, and the merging of practical and computer-generated effects virtually seamless. Burton's highly fantastical aesthetic sensibilities are, of course, an obvious match with Dahl's (I don't think anyone was surprised when it was announced that Burton would be tackling 'Charlie'), and he recreates some of the story's most well-known setpieces fabulously. The chocolate river, the squirrel attack, the Mike TeeVee laboratory -- these scenes are masterpieces of Hollywood movie magic. Perhaps they lack the chintzy charm of the original, but they are undeniably a sight to behold.
And let's not forget the film's greatest special effect, Johnny Depp. While Gene Wilder's portrayal of Wonka will always remain untouchable -- he was simultaneously charming, witty, scary and acerbic, but without seeming smug -- Depp does an intriguing take on the character that avoids parody. Depp, of course, is a very "quirky" actor -- and never predictable -- so his Wonka is something to see. To me it is not so much an interpretation of Michael Jackson (as some have speculated) as a bizarre channeling of one of those "cheesy used-car salesmen you see on local TV." His Wonka is, quite frankly, a total freak. Unpredictable and borderline unlikable, he takes the movie into territory the original never dared tread -- these kids seem genuinely terrified of Wonka, instead of fascinated. But even if Depp and Burton don't equal the appeal of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' -- almost impossible, given how steeped in our collective consciousness the film is -- their 'Charlie' is certainly a trip worth taking twice.
'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' never looked that great on standard DVD. It was quite soft, fuzzy and spotty, so this HD DVD didn't have to do much to exceed it. Thankfully, this 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/VC-1 transfer doesn't even break a sweat trying, with a very attractive presentation that, though not perfect, is sure to tickle the fancy of Wonka fans everywhere.
Though the quality of the source material is the same -- indeed, I would be surprised if both the DVD and the HD DVD were not minted from the same master -- the upgrade to high-def is still noticeable. Most impressive is that colors are less noisy and plugged up. The film's many reds, purples and browns looked muddy and undefined on the standard-def release, but here hues are both more vibrant yet smoother. Though I still think they could have been toned down a tad to keep the transfer sharper and a bit more natural in appearance, the improvement is most appreciated.
Though black levels and contrast are about on par with the previous standard DVD release, detail is superior. There is far more depth to most scenes, especially the heavy CGI exteriors, which in standard def looked quite flat. The film's many expansive sets benefit from a far better apparent depth to the image, which helps to deliver the kind of three-dimensional image expected for such a recent film. However, I still was disappointed with the relatively weak shadow delineation. The fall-off to black is quite steep, and not helping matters are the ever-so-slightly oversaturated colors. Fleshtones also look fake and pasty -- most of the actors look like they are made of plastic, not flesh. I know the film's visual sensibilities are obviously skewed towards the artificial, but I still found it somewhat distracting. Otherwise, compression artifacts and posterization are not really a problem, though there is some noticeable (if not excessive) film grain throughout, which causes some solid areas of color to look rather jumpy.
Let me get my frustration out now -- 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' includes an isolated music-only track in Dolby TrueHD, yet the main feature is available in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround only. Ummm, hello? Was there not enough space on the disc? Were the source elements not available to do a Dolby TrueHD mix on the actual soundtrack? Or was it just too expensive? Whatever the reason, the music-only track sounds so rich and pure and involving that it is hard not to be disappointed when switching over the Dolby Digital-Plus track. A total bummer.
That said, this is otherwise a perfectly fine audio presentation. The Dolby Digital-Plus track is encoded at 640kbps, and it serves the film well. All aspects of the mix are strong. Surrounds kick in often, with a full range of discrete effects popping around all four main channels, from various moving machinery to the gurgling chocolate to the pitter-patter of little Oompa Loompa feet. Dialogue is also firmly rooted, and even the weirder moments (some of things Johnny Depp says -- what on earth is he talking about?) remain crisp and defined.
However, I still have the same problem with this mix as I had on the previous DVD (as well as when I first saw the film during its theatrical run) -- the lyrics to the Oompa Loompa songs copme across as just unintelligible mush, and even at a decent volume I found them lost in the mix. I don't know if it is the tonal quality of the highly-processed voice of Oompa Loompa actor Deep Roy, or the fact that composer Danny Elfman's songs kinda suck anyway, but what should have been the aural highlight of the film instead remains its biggest disappointment.
Warner originally released 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' in two versions on DVD, an anemic single-disc set and a more expansive two-disc edition. This HD DVD release includes all of the extras from the two-disc deluxe package, though this is another one of those cases where all the bulletpoints on the back of the box are somewhat less impressive than the content itself.
Similar to 'Batman Begins,' there is no audio commentary here. (Somewhat of a surprise, as director Tim Burton usually records them for the DVD versions of his flicks.) Instead, there are several making-of featurettes, those most of these are a bit too short for their own good.
My favorite featurette was actually the one that had the least to with the movie. "Fantastic Mr. Dahl" (17:40) was produced by the BBC, and features interviews with Dahl's widow and children about his writings. It is both surprising and fascinating to see how nondescript Dahl's working conditions were, which I guess proves it really is all about pure imagination. This one could have been an hour long, and I hope someday someone does produce a full-length documentary on Dahl -- his is definitely a life worth celebrating.
The rest of the featurettes are all making-of material, culled from a batch of on-set EPK interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. The best place to start is "Making The Mix," which is actually divided into five sub-featurettes: "Chocolate Dreams" (6:57), with Burton discussing his vision of the story and sharing his early production sketches; "Different Faces, Different Flavors" (10:39) introduces to the film's talented young cast (most of whom are far more charming than their characters); "Sweet Sounds" (7:17) pays a visit to composer Danny Elfman (too bad I was pretty underwhelmed with the film's eventual score); "Designer Chocolate" (9:35) dissects the film's production design, which is undeniably fabulous and, as revealed here, pulled equally from American as well as European design aesthetics; and finally "Under the Wrapper" (6:58) gives us the skinny on some of the film's most famous effects, including the yummy chocolate river and poor Violet being turned into a giant blueberry.
The final two featurettes include "Attack of the Squirrels" (9:48), which for some reason gets quite a bit of behind-the-scenes time, even though I kinda thought many of the film's other effects were more interesting. Last but not least is "Becoming Oompa-Loompa" (7:16), which explains how Deep Roy was turned into a diminutive army via mechanical duplications and motion-control technology. No explanation is provided for why the Oompa Loompas no longer have green skin and orange hair.
Rounding out the extras are a few interactive games for kids. Learn the "Oompa-Loompa Dance," try to spot "The Bad Nut," create candy with "Wonka's Inventing Machine" or help five children on their "Search for the Golden Ticket." This is very, very simple stuff (the PlayStation 3 has nothing to worry about), but smaller tots might enjoy these.
Last in line is the film's theatrical trailer, presented here in 1080i video and Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround.
'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is a big-budget, effects-laden retelling of Roald Dahl's beloved classic. Does it capture the charm of the original 'Willy Wonka?' For my money, not quite. But I still enjoyed the ride a second time. This HD DVD release offers a very nice upgrade over the previous standard DVD release, with an improved transfer and soundtrack. However, the lack of a Dolby TrueHD track and a better In-Movie Experience feature is a bit of a disappointment. Still, 'Charlie' delivers very fine value for money, and considering that at list price this is a buck cheaper than the two-disc standard-def DVD release, you really can't go wrong picking this one up.