Rewind: Who's Your Willy?

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' ups the ante on Hollywood's remaking of beloved, iconic films.

It's all semantic. Tim Burton insists that his adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is not a remake of the 1971 movie, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." But if a book has already been turned into a movie, and then is turned into a movie again, is that not a remake? How is it possible to not compare the two versions? This is not the kind of apples-and-oranges, book-to-film comparison that is inherently unfair. It's comparing one movie to another movie that's telling the same story. (Tangerines and clementines, perhaps?) And while Burton claims that he was never a fan of the original film directed by Mel Stuart, his is a minority opinion. Which begs the question: When is a remake (or whatever) more than ill-advised?

Burton may be right in that his film hews more closely to Roald Dahl's 1964 book than Stuart's did, but since Dahl himself wrote the screenplay for and was heavily involved in the making of the original film, it's safe to assume that "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" reflects his vision. Dahl died in 1990, his estate has been overseen by his family and, as with Dr. Seuss post-mortem, we can only speculate as to what he'd think of what's currently being done with (and to) his creations.

We saw "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" with minds as open as possible, but hearts long given over to the first "Willy Wonka." And we have to say, whether closer in spirit or detail to Dahl's book or not, "Charlie" is no golden ticket. Burton's film is a product of our time: It's far more concerned with how it looks than with what's inside. As with most of the director's movies, it's another overly art-directed set piece that fails to connect on any real emotional level, despite the newly (and awkwardly) added backstory that gives Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) parental abandonment issues. There's no whimsy, no magic; it's all style and no substance.

By contrast, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" — the chocolatier was given top billing in the film in order to tie in with a General Mills candy line — is steeped in heart and soul. Like "It's a Wonderful Life" and "The Wizard of Oz," Stuart's film was neither a critical nor a commercial success in its original release, but it has since gained a beloved status not unlike those two indisputable Hollywood classics. Like much of the best children's entertainment, the movie can at times be difficult: smart, dark and occasionally terrifying, it presents a world that ironically is not at all sugarcoated.

From the addition (by Dahl himself) of the subplot of Slugworth and the formula for the Everlasting Gobstopper, to the decision to make the film a musical (and what songs!), to the terrific casting, to the pure imagination of the magical (but believable) chocolate room, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" is pitch perfect.

But the weight of the most iconic films almost always rests on the shoulders of an indelible performance. Gene Wilder became Willy Wonka. Throughout the film, he's not very lovable, and he's a little loopy, but he is (in contrast with Johnny Depp's one-weird-note performance) real. You feel his cynicism toward the rotten kids, the devilish glee and creative pride he takes in the sometimes trippy aspects of the factory. There's a sparkle in Wilder's eye that hints at something deeper. And when Charlie gives back the Everlasting Gobstopper, the emotional payoff as he learns he's passed the test and won the entire factory is sweeter than anything in the new film.

Any movie remake brings out purists who champion the original. It's inevitable.

Even the unreleased 1994 "Fantastic Four" cheapie probably has its champions (see last week's column, "Rewind: The Long, Strange Trip Of The 'Fantastic Four' "). The knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss remakes as crass emblems of Hollywood's lack of imagination and daring. And, of course, that's often the case. Studios bank on youthful ignorance of film history ("There was another 'Cape Fear'?"), good old-fashioned xenophobia (" 'The Ring' is better in English!") or the powerful combination of filmgoers' laziness and the studios' marketing might ("I'm going to go see 'Charlie's Angels' because I've heard of it!").

But certain genres, such as science fiction or monster movies, seem to allow for reinterpretation. Sometimes people want to see what improved effects technology can add to a story. As beloved as the original 1933 "King Kong" is, most fans seem to be jazzed for Peter Jackson's new version this Christmas (and we actually don't even mind Dino De Laurentiis' much maligned 1976 film). These genre films can be updated to fit contemporary technology and a specific social or political environment while retaining the core nugget of the story (as in "War of the Worlds" and "The Fly").

But there do seem to be some films that are so iconic, so timeless, so ingrained, and so marked by indelible lead performances that to remake them seems quixotic, at best. Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-for-shot redo of "Psycho" is regarded by almost everyone as nothing more than a curious exercise. Poor David Soul never stood a chance replacing the image of Humphrey Bogart as Rick in the 1983 TV series based on "Casablanca." And as much as we love Steve Martin, nobody's ever going to supplant the late, great Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in "The Pink Panther." (Perhaps the studio realized this too late, as the new movie's release has been bumped to next year.)

Maybe for kids who have never read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," or have never seen the original film on video, Johnny Depp will become Willy Wonka. But it's a sure bet that their parents sitting next to them in the theater won't be able to shake the memories of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, and his world of pure imagination.

Check out everything we've got on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

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