In The Brothers Grimm, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas’ scrupulously detailed village has a ferocious authenticity that visually grounds the film. Its seeming veracity extends the possibility for the bizarre and unnatural and in the images of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel they generally crop up in subtle form such as the poetic flash of a lost child’s fluttering cape or the transformation from beast to man viewed in heavy silhouette.In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we are taken from a drab, mundane setting into a cornucopia of color and fantasy on the other side of an impassioned rainbow. The fun-house environment provides designer Alex McDowell with the opportunity to give full vent to a world where imagination rules and logic operates like a Rube Goldberg configuration. The film has a visual boldness and audacity that extends to the costumes and makeup as well as many of the performances… the musical element however proves to be a disappointment with composer Danny Elfman’s song score mired in character tunes that reflect limited versatility.The transition from any craft to directing logically carries with it a built-in bias. We associate an elevated sense of literacy in the work of such former screenwriters as Billy Wilder and James Brooks, whereas the work of Zhang Yimou—whose career began in design—is generally visually pristine. The list of people that have segued from film animation to calling the shots isn’t very long. Frank Tashlin comes to mind historically, and current examples include the highly idiosyncratic Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.Both men in their former and current guises owe a great debt, both visually and spiritually, to the aptly named illustrator of the macabre, Edward Gorey (his voluminous work includes the opening design for the PBS Mystery series). And the filmmakers’ respective current films The Brothers Grimm and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory convey a desire to transform fanciful two-dimensional renderings into the live-action realm. That aspect of each film works well, but each suffers on a script level that, for a variety of reasons, keeps us at arm’s distance rather than in the emotional center of the yarns.The Brothers Grimm were previously memorialized on film (adaptations aside) in a sanitized biography produced for Cinerama in 1962. Gilliam and screenwriter Ehren Krueger abandon any notion of factuality in their approach to the chroniclers of hundreds of myths and legends. In much the fashion that cinema reconfigured Van Helsing into an action hero, the Grimms, as portrayed by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, become 19th-century confidence men preying on rural superstitions to ply a lucrative trade in exorcizing a variety of demons from villages throughout Germany.The twist of the new film is that the siblings find themselves unexpectedly confronting the sort of supernatural forces that had previously only been part of their writings. The device allows for glimpses of many of those fairy tales to jar our consciousness. Additionally, there’s the historic verity that the realm was under Napoleonic rule and the regional overseer Delatombe is ferocious about bringing enlightenment to these dark corners and crushing the mysticism embodied by the brothers.Both the period and the context lend themselves to lush interpretation and Gilliam is not one to rein in his collaborators. Guy Hendrix Dyas’ scrupulously detailed village has a ferocious authenticity that visually grounds the film. Its seeming veracity extends the possibility for the bizarre and unnatural and in the images of Newton Thomas Sigel they generally crop up in subtle form such as the poetic flash of a lost child’s fluttering cape or the transformation from beast to man viewed in heavy silhouette. There’s also more than a hint of sardonic humor that threads through the narrative and one has to consider if the location contributed to putting the crow in Croatia.The film works best when it grasps a visual metaphor much in the manor of such delicate movie gems as The Company of Wolves or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that were derived from Grimm tales. However, the filmmaker has an antic spirit and a penchant for all manner of chaos that intrudes not always in a complimentary way. The story itself has a complexity and lunacy that too often defies and daunts comprehension. Gilliam has a history for questing after holy grails and in his current manifestation a saga whose moral is vague, ironic and inconclusive, undoing the majesty of his imagery.The message of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is contrarily overly and overtly obvious. Goodness will prevail over all other obstacles in this second screen adaptation of the classic kid lit novel by Roald Dahl that was published in the 1960s and has continued to enthrall young readers ever since. Tim Burton strenuously elects to jettison virtually anything that might recall the earlier film and appears intent on creating a new template that might be described as The Wizard of Oz meets Bollywood.For those unfamiliar with the story, Charlie (Freddie Hightower) is a British boy from an excruciatingly poor but happy clan. His future is elevated when he buys a chocolate bar containing one of five golden tickets that provide him entry to the factory of the reclusive candy genius Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp). For the handful of lucky winners a further single prize is dangled in front of their noses at the completion of the tour.It doesn’t take a great deal to transpose Charlie and Wonka into Dorothy and the Wizard and one cannot help but be struck by the visual similarities in which both the land of Oz and the inner recesses of the factory are unveiled. In both instances we are taken from a drab, mundane setting into a cornucopia of color and fantasy on the other side of an impassioned rainbow. The fun house environment provides designer Alex McDowell with the opportunity to give full vent to a world where imagination rules and logic operates like a Rube Goldberg configuration.The film has a visual boldness and audacity that extends to the costumes and makeup as well as many of the performances. Charlie is the essence of quiet and reason in an otherwise frenzied, riotous situation.The Bollywood aspect derives from the marriage of visual opulence and song and dance. The musical element however proves to be a disappointment with Danny Elfman’s song score mired in character tunes that reflect limited versatility. The film’s choreography is also restricted by the decision to have all the pint-sized Oompa-Loompas that run the factory portrayed by the actor Deep Roy and endless digital reproductions. It results in dance numbers reminiscent of Busby Berkeley but more strategic than emotional in tone.Missing overall is a sense of whimsy that’s certainly been a keen aspect of the filmmaker’s past efforts. Charlie’s youthful adversaries are largely defined by one of the seven deadly sins—pride, gluttony, greed, etc.—and a lack of human dimension. Wonka regrettably has irony and wit but appears devoid of warmth, and an ill-advised back story provides a dark, psychological underpinning that’s crushing to any hope of narrative effervescence.Again, delight and surprise are all too brief and fleeting, and the prospect of happily ever after is served up as ironic when it ought to be heartfelt.
Written by Len Klady