Saturday, July 16, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Other than Revenge of the Sith, this has been a pretty lackluster summer movie season. However, things may be turning around. Last week, I saw a sneak preview of The Island, which was surprisingly good. Michael Bay isn't a director I'm usually a fan of, but this is by far his best film, featuring not only great photography and action sequences, but also some really interesting plot stuff, as well as solid acting from Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. I really respect Bay's visual sense, particularly when shooting Dijmon Honshu's character, I feel like Dijmon must have slipped him some money because he's shot in an unbelievably cool way.

And after seeing that, I knew that over the next two weeks, two of my favorite directors would be bringing out new films. On July 22, Richard Linklater's new Bad News Bears drops and yesterday I saw the new film from Tim Burton, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Now, the one thing these two films have in common is the fact that I really have to question what each of these directors is doing. For two people with such unique artistic voices, it seems like a waste of talent to remake anything, let alone family films from the 70s. But I respect the two of them enough that I'll see anything they put out, and these two films are no exception.

So, after seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I'm left with sort of a mixed feeling. I can see why Burton would want to make the film, because it's an incredible visual showcase, but it's also the one film where the criticism frequently leveled against him, that he's merely a visual showman with no storytelling ability, may be true. This is a film that's basically an hour long jaunt through a visual wonderland, bookended by some marginally developed story.

The film is reduced to the level of pure cinema, just music and visual, quite frequently. In a mainstream Hollywood film, this sort of narrative abstraction is quite admirable. Burton succeeds in making a film where the narrative consists solely of a tour of visual spectacle. The whole tour of the factory consists of showing us a room, and then a spectacular act of violence directed towards a child. I love the enjoyment the film lets us take in the suffering of the children. Sure, they're set up as unlikable characters, but you don't frequently see kids eaten by squirrels, without any consequences whatsoever.

The thing I love about the film is the visuals. Burton's two most recent films, Planet of the Apes and Big Fish, did have some interesting visual stuff going on, but they weren't particularly 'Burton.' This film is definitely a return to the visual excess of films like Beetlejuice and Batman Returns, this film is more visually centered than anything else in Burton's career. It reminds me a lot of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in the way that it's about this wacky guy going through a series of visually spectacular moments.

The environments in the film were incredible looking. I particularly loved the TV room, and those great sunglasses, as well as the cartoon-techno excess of the gum room. Another really cool visual moment was the puppet intro to the factory.

The other person who returned with this film is Danny Elfman. Elfman is one of my favorite film composers, and in Burton's best films, his music is integral to making the film work. His scores for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns are arguably the two best film scores ever written, fully integrated into the storytelling. The ending sequence of Batman Returns is operatic, relying solely on visuals and music to tell the story. And of course there's his phenomenal work on Nightmare Before Christmas, where he may deserve even more credit than Burton for making it such a great film.

Sadly, Elfman has been, quite frankly, sucking lately. His work on Spider-Man was nonexistent, and Hulk wasn't much better. His score made absolutely no impact on the viewer, and Planet of the Apes and Big Fish weren't much better. When you hire a composer as great as Elfman, his work should be brought front and center, not used as merely background accompaniment.

Luckily, with this film, his music is spotlighted right from the beginning. His opening cue is phenomenal, with great choral bits and the nice integration of some crazy electronic sounds. It's his best work for Burton since Mars Attacks! And once we get into the factory, Elfman really steps into the spotlight, with the crazy songs he writes for the Oompa Loompas. These songs harken back to Elfman's days in the rock band, Oingo Boingo, but move through all sorts of musical styles. My favorite is the folk song style number done when Violet is put down the garbage chute, but all the songs are great. Elfman needs to do another musical, he's a musical genius.

These musical sequences provide Burton with some of the best visual material in the film. He does some cool Busby Berkley allusions, including one really cool shot where the camera is down a chute and people are rotating around above it, creating a reverse Busby. I really liked the use of one actor to portray all the Oompa Loompas, the effects there are seamless, and make everything seem really surreal. These musical sequences were definitely the highlight of the movie.

Sadly, while the oompa loompa effects were seamless, the film was too reliant on CG set pieces. The opening sequence was pretty solid CG, but you could still tell it was CG and that took me out of the movie. If you compare that factory press sequence to the one that opens Pee-Wee's Big Adventure or Edward Scissorhands, I think it's obvious that sometimes is better to create a convincing effect than to have the excess visual spectacle of that sequence. I know 'it's all not not real,' so it's pointless to criticize CG, but that sort of obvious CG takes me out of the reality of the film. Similarly, there's some parts during the factory tour that are obvious CG, such as the boat ride bit, and they're much less visually dazzling than the sets.

I guess the problem here is that the CG is being presented purely as visual spectacle, so you're forced to examine the irreality of it, whereas in something like Revenge of the Sith, the CG is used in service of a narrative, so you're consumed in the narrative and accept the CG as a part of the world. I still feel like even in the best CG, there's something a bit artificial about it. A well designed model is better than the best CG, look at the space battle in Return of the Jedi, or all of Blade Runner, a film that looks so real, a reality that, at least today, could not be matched in CG.

But, on the whole, this is still one of the most exciting visual films I've seen in a long time. It always offers you something new and interesting to look at, and the sets are nicely integrated into the film's thematic development, notably with the Buckets' house. One of the coolest visual moments was when Wonka's father moves his house out of a block and into the middle of nowhere. That's one of those classic moments that makes no sense in real world terms, but somehow works.

The actual plot of this film is Burton going back to his classic theme, the outsider struggling to come to terms with society. Wonka lives on his own in a castle atop a town, much like Edward Scissorhands. The narrative structure here is also drawn from Edward Scissorhands, with Wonka flashing back to his experience with his father over the course of the narrative, in the same way that Edward did.

The difference between this film and his best work is that each of those films did something different with the outsider theme. Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns tell almost identical stories, but with totally different tones and generic signifiers. Factory just presents the classic theme, without going any further or developing it in any new way.

I think it's difficult for artists who have pet themes to create new films, because people have certain expectations of what they should be. I criticized Big Fish and Planet of the Apes because they weren't 'Burton' enough, but here I'm saying that Factory is just Burton on autopilot, so it's nearly impossible for him to find the right balance. I think it's same criticism that Lynch got on Mulholland Dr. or Wong Kar-Wai on 2046, they're just going back to the same themes and visual motifs, without developing them further. Is this film just Burton doing Burton, as MD is Lynch doing Lynch?

The problem with Factory is that it just has no substance. The character conflicts are only marginally developed, and the ending seems a bit trite. That's because so much of the film focuses on the purely visual, and those are by far the best moments. So, the question this film raises is, are great visuals and music enough to make a great film? I would argue in this case, it makes a good film, but not a great one.

Most films have the opposite problem, they have a competent story, but nothing interesting visually. Burton has always been criticized for his lack of storytelling ability, and on his other films, I would stronly dispute that claim. Beetlejuice has phenomenal characters and a really interesting story, and Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns are so thematically rich, you could analyze them for years. If Factory didn't exist within Burton's canon, there'd really be nothing to analyze. Storywise, it's only interesting looking at it from the perspective of auteur criticism.

And, this is a film where nearly everyone going to see it already knows what happens, the joy is purely in seeing how things happen, and since there's not much story, the how is all in the visual. The story itself is designed to be a visual showcase, so from the moment he chose this project, Burton was basically destined to make a film that's solely a visual experience.

The question this film leaves is, can a film be successful solely as a visual creation, with minimal narrative or thematic substance? The answer I would give is yes, but without those things a film can never be truly great. A film needs to have both a story, or at least thematic issues or character development, and interesting visuals to be a great film. Burton has made a really fun movie that's visually dazzling, but it's not a great film. Burton's problem right now is that he's done so many variations on the same theme, it's tough to come up with a new approach, yet when he branches out, his films don't feel 'Burton' enough. It's definitely a conundrum. The stop motion film, Corpse Bride, definitely has potential, but Burton's only co-directing. However, he didn't direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it's still phenomenal, if Corpse Bride is half as good, it'll be Tim's best film since Ed Wood.

If I was to advise Tim, I would say his next live action film should be a musical based on an original story he creates, with music by Danny Elfman. The best moments of Charlie are the songs, both musically and visually, so why not go all out, and create something as visually crazy as Nightmare, but in live action, and fully integrating the songs into the plot. Maybe that would be the best way to keep developing his favorite themes, and still create a very new, fresh film.

1 comment: said...

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