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Tim Burton gets squirrelly in ‘Charlie’

Whatever Tim Burton wants, Tim Burton gets. And for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which opens Friday, the iconoclastic director requested real squirrels -- 100, to be exact -- for a pivotal scene in the nut-sorting department in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The 100 squirrels are perched on tiny stools where they evaluate each nut by both scent and sound.

Burton, who worked with trained chimps in “Planet of the Apes” and horses in “Sleepy Hollow,” had to settle for just 40 rodents for the scene, augmented with animatronics, computer graphics and multiple images.

Senior animal trainer Mike Alexander of Birds & Animals, Ltd. and a team of four trainers spent 19 weeks working with their lively charges, some of which came from private homes in England and others from local shelters. Though the squirrels were intelligent and immensely photogenic, training them made their teachers a little nuts.

The first three weeks of training were spent making the animals comfortable leaving their crates and sitting with their instructors. The trainers then introduced the squirrels to props and a trick -- picking up a nut and putting it into a metal bowl.

Each of the 40 inquisitive rodents was given its own name, and it wasn’t long before the trainers discovered that the little creatures had unique talents and personalities. Some had no interest in picking up nuts. Others wouldn’t let go of them.

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(No actor analogies, please!)

-- Susan King


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