Wonka unwrapped

He's got real squirrels, a spectacular set and even smaller Oompa-Loompahs. But did Tim Burton really need to remake 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'? Louise Jury reports on a sugar-coated moneyspinner
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So there were some jitters when it was announced that the chisel-cheekboned Johnny Depp was to reprise the role under the direction of the Edward Scissorhands creator Tim Burton. Wilder himself accused the producers of money-grabbing. "It's just some people sitting around thinking, 'How can we make some money?' Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?" he said in a bitter interview in America last month. "I don't see the point of going back and doing it all over again."

Film fans may well agree. From The Manchurian Candidate with Denzel Washington to Alfie with Jude Law, the evidence of recent remakes is that they prove to be a sad and unsatisfactory diminution of a good original.

For all the jaw-dropping pyro-technics of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise, there are many who would argue for the 1953 version. (Complete purists would probably plump for Orson Welles's 1938 adaptation on American radio, which sparked genuine fears of alien invasion.)

Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo had a good crack but failed to rekindle the smouldering sex appeal of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair. Genuinely innovative reinterpretations of a classic story, such as Baz Luhrmann's take on Romeo and Juliet, have fared better.

Yet Felicity (known as Liccy) Dahl, Roald Dahl's widow, and other members of his family are confident that the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would have secured Dahl's blessing and will come to surpass the sugar-coated 1971 version. "He would have loved it," Liccy said after a private screening. Dahl was said to have been disappointed with the original film, not least because he had wanted the altogether more eccentric Spike Milligan to play Wonka.

Previous suggestions of a re-make had always fallen at the tough hurdles erected by the Dahl estate which, in an indication of the power it wields, had full approval on director, screenplay and lead casting. Warner Brothers have had the rights for about eight years, but only with the combination of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and, as Charlie, Freddie Highmore (the young actor acclaimed for his performance in Finding Neverland) coming together some two years ago did the family give the project the green light.

Burton was, of course, an intriguing prospect. With a back catalogue of dark and offbeat movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetle Juice, he seemed closer in spirit to Roald Dahl than Mel Stuart was three decades ago. Johnny Depp described Tim Burton and Dahl as "a match made in heaven".

More significantly, Amanda Conquy, who handles the literary estate, insists that they never saw it as a remake of the first film. "We think it is a new film based on the book of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," she says.

"Warner Brothers are still selling the DVD of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which is very, very successful, particularly in the States where it has cult status for children. Warner are not doing this because they want in any way to stop their very precious and successful DVD of Willy Wonka. That will carry on alongside this.

"But it's time for this classic book to have a new film made of it. That film is now more than 30 years old. The book is 40 years old. It's time for it to be reinterpreted. And what we loved about Tim was that he was so inventive. His visual sense is so wonderful, and the [chocolate] factory demanded that."

Sources suggest that the much bigger budget - said to be between £50m and £80m - has enabled the new version to be more faithful to the original. The sets were bigger, and included a river of 192,000 gallons of special-effect melted chocolate. In 1971, the film-makers replaced the chocolate factory's nut-sorting squirrels with a machine, but Burton has had 40 real squirrels trained for weeks to be able to crack walnuts and deposit them on a conveyor belt.

"I don't want to crush people's childhood dreams," Burton said, "but the original film is sappy. I responded to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because it respected the fact that children can be adults. It was one of the first times you had children's literature that was a bit more sophisticated and dealt with darker issues and feelings. Very sinister things are a part of childhood."

Conquy says the estate are thrilled that the new film version is much closer to the spirit of the book. "It's absolutely magical, and very, very funny. The comeuppances the children get delivered to them are delivered with such panache," she says.

She is convinced that those for whom Gene Wilder is the epitome of Willy Wonka will be won over, and that the new version surpasses the first. "The DVD of Willy Wonka still exists and it's great fun, but it seems of its time. This is a film that could only have been made now."

'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' opens nationwide on 29 July

Second helpings

THE BEST

The Thomas Crown Affair

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway smoulder in this 1968 tale of bank robberies and sexual politics. There were complaints at the time that the theft story didn't keep the audience in suspense. The same could not be said of the 1999 version. Critically overlooked but a winner at the box office, this remake kept the audience guessing. Dunaway gets a cameo as Pierce Brosnan's psychotherapist, while the thinking man's Bond pulls it off as the art-theft-for-kicks magnate.

The Magnificent Seven

Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) is one of the most important films ever made and gave birth to the entire genre in which a gang solves a problem together. Kurosawa's story of a Japanese village which employs the services of the samurai to protect it also spawned the idea of the Hollywood remake in 1960, when the director John Sturges transposed it to Mexico and the American West. The Hollywood version, though, is magnificent in its own right, with McQueen, Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn as the guns for hire

Romeo and Juliet

When the film world heard that Baz Luhrmann was going to direct Romeo and Juliet, they said he would never top Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version. But Luhrmann's 1996 film ripped the Bard open and splashed him on to our cinema screens in bright colours and gangland outfits, and took $135m worldwide.

THE WORST

Planet of the Apes

Charlton Heston plays the astronaut captured and taken to the city of the apes in Frank J Schaffner's memorable 1968 adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel, Planet des Singes. Despite the rubbery masks and ludicrous ape accessories, the original still draws laughs and gasps in equal measure. Tim Burton's 2001 remake was a full-on stinker, dragging some tired monkey business from Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter. The Simpsons did a far better job with its hilarious spoof Planet of the Apes: The Musical.

The Jackal

In the original 1973 version, The Day of the Jackal, Edward Fox plays the hitman hired to kill French President Charles de Gaulle in Frank Zinneman's thriller. A fictional story based on the very real threat of French terrorism, this classic had the audience's emotions on a string. But when Michael Caton-Jones created the 1997 remake, he involved the IRA, the FBI, and the Basque separatists. Bruce Willis and a host of Hollywood top brass (Richard Gere, Sidney Poitier et al) become embroiled in the imbroglio.

Alfie

Michael Caine's breakthrough role in 1966, Alfie is the story of a womaniser who tries to settle down and is rebuffed. Interspersing Caine's sexual conquests with straight-to-camera confessionals, it coined a catchphrase, "What's it all about?" Charles Shyer updated events to 2004 Manhattan, and it flopped. Jude Law fell for Sienna Miller during filming, but their romance didn't combust where it mattered.

The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks had a hell of time adapting Raymond Chandler's complicated noir thriller, but when the film emerged in cinemas in 1946, starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, it became a noir classic. It is hard to know what Michael Winner thought he was doing when he took on his 1978 remake, but whatever he was thinking it didn't work. Transposing the drama to London and casting Joan Collins for Bacall, Winner butchered Chandler like a Sunday lunch.

Ed Caesar

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