Knight at the Movies Archives
Clones, Chocolate, Children:
The Island, Charlie and the Chocolates Factory, Stolen Childhoods
7-20-05 Knight at the Movies column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
Two diverting summer fantasies, one reality check
The Island, which opens this Friday, is exactly the dumb as a bag of hammers sci-fi action picture that I’ve been waiting all
summer for. No need to waste a moment on the ethics of cloning or the idea of harvesting human organs or any of the other heavy
ideas that provide the plot with its “weighty” means to a slam bang thrill packed end. Once it’s over, it’s best not to give this thrill
ride of a movie a second thought. A better idea might be to strap back in and watch The Island a second time. It’s a great
example of a blissfully, shamelessly big glitzy junky guilty pleasure.
In other words, it’s a Michael Bay picture.
You know, the director that does action likes there’s no tomorrow (in his 1998 Amageddon, the better of the two “meteor” disaster
flicks that year, it was a distinct possibility). Bay has also directed Bad Boys, The Rock (with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage), and Bad
Boys II. His only misstep has been the overlong, over dramatized Pearl Harbor. But with The Island Bay is back on firmer ground and
the picture sizzles with one gigantic action set piece after another. Bay has also learned that a little humor goes a long way in a
soulless man against the system story, which this is. The nimble Steve Buscemi, who has served this purpose in many, many
previous roles does so again here.
The movie combines big parts of Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Eraser, Total Recall, Coma, and Minority Report, to name a few. Most sci fi
movies present future civilizations as tightly controlled, 1984 style, or a post-nuclear wreck, ala the Mad Max pictures. This one
gives us bits of both and like all these scenarios that focus on the loss of the individual, once our hero has awakened to his
antiseptic but deadly dull surroundings, he runs off with an open mouthed beauty. Ewan McGregor, fetching as always, fills the hero
shoes quite nicely and Scarlett Johansson actually closes her mouth from time to time. That the two, once they wake up to the
reality around them, survive a series of implausible chase and disaster scenes, is a given. That they do so, aided by a series of
inventive high tech gadgets, adds to the fun.
When I looked over my notes from the screening, I was shocked to learn that I wrote things like, “typical,” “here we go again” and
“why can’t one of these action heroes be gay?” So why did I have such a good time at The Island and why am I eager to ride it
again? In a word – Sherri. My good, old friend who’s a major Ewan McGregor fan sat next to me reacting to every twist and turn as if
she’d never seen an action movie before. She gasped, clutched my arm, laughed and giggled at the audacious set pieces. Her
experience certainly heightened mine. In fact, she’s planning on taking her husband this weekend. My husband and I are joining
The credit sequence of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is highly reminiscent of Tim Burton’s best picture Edward
Scissorhands. It immediately told me that Burton had once again found a perfect marriage for his pronounced childlike whimsy and
darker sensibilities. The opening scenes of the film had me ecstatic as Burton seemed to prove that he was working at the top of
his game. “This is an instant classic,” I thought, pixilated by one fizzy sequence after another. But eventually the movie, like a
child stuffed with too much Halloween candy, starts to sour and while the final result isn’t exactly a mouthful of cavities, a certain
amount of tooth decay does set in.
What child (and adult of a certain age) doesn’t know the story of Willy Wonka, the childlike chocolatier who lives alone in his factory
along with his helpers, the tiny Oompa Loompas (all played here by the remarkable Deep Roy)? The original 1971 film, Willy Wonka
& the Chocolate Factory, with the perfectly cast Gene Wilder in the title role, has perhaps a higher reputation than it deserves. For
many, though (and I’m among their number), it’s a seminal experience. Certainly, the inclusion of the achingly beautiful song “Pure
Imagination,” the “freak out” boat ride, the sitcom inspired readings of Jack Albertson as the grandfather, and the rest of the top
notch cast helped. And the whole thing is tied together by Peter Ostrum’s performance as the young Charlie Bucket. He’s like the
innocent male version of Garland’s Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
How could the Burton version possibly match up?
It doesn’t and smartly, it doesn’t try to. Instead, Burton mostly stakes out new territory – and it’s in those instances that the picture
soars (Willy Wonka’s nightmare childhood is particularly inventive). Burton emphasizes magnificent sets, costumes and art direction
over the personalities of the kids and their parents. In place of the hit and miss songs of the original, Danny Elfman writes some in-
the-moment catchy numbers in various retro styles (funk, metal rock, etc.) that are flashy and fun but will not stand the test of
time. In Willy Wonka, Burton’s got Johnny Depp with his Jackie-O sunglasses and baby Pee Wee Herman imitation voice. Depp’s
characterization, though irritating at first, eventually pays off (and though I understand why Depp got false teeth, why did Helena
Bonham Carter as Charlie’s mother?). David Kelly as Grandpa Joe can’t compete with Albertson’s vaudeville turn but Freddie
Highmore, so preternaturally ideal in Finding Neverland, is a worthy successor to Ostrum as Charlie Bucket.
I think if I was a theatre owner I’d book BOTH pictures, back to back and let everyone gorge on both these eye candy features. So
what’s a little tummy ache now and again?
After all the candy eating spoiled brat kids it’s a sobering experience to see the horrors of many real life children in the eye opening
Stolen Childhoods, which plays this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center. This documentary tracks the plight of the 246 million
children worldwide forced into virtual slave labor. And not just in third world countries, either. Though the film tracks individual
children in a coffee farm in Kenya, a stone quarry in India, and a fishing platform in Sumatra, it’s surprising to also see the children
of U.S. migrant workers in Texas forced to labor along with their parents. Most horrifying: children, like vultures, following closely on
the heels of bulldozers trying to scavenge amidst huge dumps and barely scurrying out of the way. The film is narrated by Meryl
Streep in a straight forward manner that softens the shock effect of the subject matter but the tired eyes and the resoluteness of
these children will break your heart nevertheless.