Children's movies are dark and terrible, although the type of dark and terrible they happen to be depends on the age of the audience that they’re targeting. Toy Story 3 is about accepting death, but because it’s nominally geared toward young children, all of the holocaust references and torture scenes are couched in bright pastels. Young adult literature can be a lot more brazen about its subject matter, which tends to be identity confusion, sexuality, and the consequences of one's actions.
J.K. Rowling managed a coup by telling the story of Harry Potter’s complete adolescence. He must learn to be his own parent, decide who he is and see the consequences of his actions and, of course, confront and defeat death. Don’t fool yourself, Rowling is a fantastic writer. I’ve said elsewhere that Stephanie Meyer makes J.K. Rowling look like Virginia Woolf, but that obscures the fact that J.K. Rowling makes J. K. Rowling look like Jane Austen.
The Harry Potter movies have a similar progression, from those Christopher Columbus pastels to where we are now, with articles in newspapers across the U.S. asking whether or not Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is too scary for children.
The king of dark children’s literature is Roald Dahl. He's a fascinating figure who wrote a great deal more than children’s literature. Dahl wrote a lot of O. Henry-ish crime stories, one of which ends with a woman serving up investigating officers the very leg of lamb she used to bludgeon her husband to death. The detectives gnaw away while telling her that once they find the murder weapon, they’ll find her husband’s killer.
Dahl also wrote a whole slew of rather twisted children’s stories, the most famous of which is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, later made into this week’s classic movie:
1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Roald Dahl wrote the original screenplay, but he didn’t meet his deadline and the writing duties were eventually handed to David Seltzer. Dahl radically disliked many of the changes Seltzer made, but for most folks who love both the book and the movie, they’re different but equally enjoyable.
There’s a kind of darkness at the edge of the movie; an inscrutability that suggests something truly scary going on somewhere in the depths of Wonka’s factory. The book doesn’t possess that haunting quality, but it does set up the basic engine for the story: a cautionary tale that tells children what happens when they overindulge.
The book, in fact, gets a great deal more grotesque. At the end Charlie actually gets to see what happens to the other children when they’ve been “fixed” by Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas. Mike Teevee, for instance, has been pulled by the taffy-pulling machine until he’s ten feet tall and thin as paper.
The movie recasts this children’s story into a young adult coming of age tale culminating in the decision of Charlie Bucket to either spy on Willy Wonka for money or go back to his penniless life with nothing. This is one of the changes Dahl got so upset about. In the book his simple non-act of avoiding misbehavior while on the tour wins him stewardship of the factory. That’s not quite active enough storytelling for film, so Seltzer recasts Slugworth as a rival chocolate maker using the children as spies.
Much of the magic in the Willy Wonka movie, like much of the magic in the Harry Potter movies, comes from perfect casting. Dahl wanted Spike Milligan, which might have been cool, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone being as pitch-perfect as Gene Wilder, who toyed with the mystery of Willy Wonka with a kind of dangerous playfulness never managed by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in the recent remake.
I can only hope that as J.K. Rowling watches the last of her Harry Potter books make its way to the silver screen with a great deal more pride and pleasure than Roald Dahl managed when his own characters made their debut.
Zak Gibbs (Jesse Bradford) finds what looks like a wristwatch while scavenging through a box of his father's junk. What he doesn't know is that the watch is actually a device that makes its wearer move so quickly that the rest of the world appears to be moving in slow motion. The device was sent to his father (Robin Thomas) a science professor and dilettante inventor by a former student (French Stewart) who is being held captive by an evil corporation. Now the evildoers want their watch back and kidnap the professor while Zak unaware that his father is in grave danger runs around town with a cutie pie exchange student (Paula Garces) freezing time. Of course the two teens eventually join forces and save the day. Not only is the film's plot is so unbelievably implausible the characters are ridiculously typecast. The most insulting is Zak's black friend Meeker (Garikayi Mutambirwa) who dreams of winning a DJ competition. Eager to help him win Zak and his gal pal go into hypertime and make like puppeteers moving Meeker's arms and legs so that in real time it appears as though he's a good dancer.
Jesse Bradford (Bring It On) is the most redeemable thing in this film. His character Zak is a conventional teen who is smart but not brilliant and clever without being a hero. But unfortunately Bradford is stuck in this mess of a movie acting alongside the pretty but frothy Paula Garces. Like most girls in the movies nowadays her character Francesca de la Cruz is a vixen that cleverly puts guys in their places and can single-handedly beat up a villain. French Stewart is Dr. Earl Dopler the watch's creator. Although his brainy character is the opposite of his airheaded Harry on Third Rock From the Sun Stewart seems like he is the same persona simply reading a different script. Robin Thomas (The Contender) and Julia Sweeney (Whatever It Takes) play Zak's parents. Both are pretty standard fare: Thomas the parent married to his work at the expense of his relationship with Zak while Sweeney is a regular June Cleaver type.
Why Jonathan Frakes better known as Commander Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation or anyone for that matter would put their names on this project is unfathomable. From the hideously flashy and noisy opening credits to the predictable denouement Clockstoppers is about as entertaining as nails scraping against a chalkboard. The ridiculous story accompanied by flimsy special effects was penned by too many writers to mention. This may explain the massive plot inconsistencies--are they not supposed to count because this film is aimed at younger viewers? At one point Zak comes to the realization that for others to come in and out of hypertime they must be touching him. But there are several instances throughout the film that clearly contradict this. The watch also makes its users age rapidly but seems to spare Zak his friends and the evildoers of this fate. And is there no gravity in hypertime? Zak and Francesca were able to toss Meeker around the stage like he was weightless. And is Meeker a typical cheery Jamaican caricature with thick dreadlocks in the film for no other reason than to offend? His character disappears halfway through the film after being redeemed by his white rescuers.