Although comparisons are inevitable, Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” really shouldn’t be put up against the 1971 Gene Wilder children’s classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” While based on the same source material, the two films are quite different in tone and target. As with the fairy tales penned by the brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl’s story of a wacky confectioner and his even wackier factory brilliantly weaves elements of fantasy with a dark, and at times gruesome, cautionary edge. The original film downplayed the darker elements of Dahl’s story, while Burton’s version is much more sinister, choosing to revel in twisted elements rather than gloss over them. As a result, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a children’s film where the adults will get more out of it than the kids.
“Charlie” stars Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) as Willy Wonka, a famous but reclusive confectioner who announces that he has hidden five golden tickets inside his chocolate bars for the public to find. The lucky few who find these tickets will be given a guided tour of Wonka’s factory, and one lucky winner will get a mystery prize. Global pandemonium ensues, with four of the tickets found by a rotten assortment of brats. Hope dwindles for poor Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland”), who is very much not a brat, but is instead a scruffy lad who lives with his bed-ridden extended family in a hysterically slanted house. Then fate intervenes, and Charlie spots some money in the snow with which he buys a Wonka bar containing the fifth golden ticket.
Accompanied by his giddy Grandpa Joe (David Kelly, “Waking Ned Devine”), Charlie joins the other winners for the tour of the factory, envisioned here by director Tim Burton as housing chocolate rivers that through a sugary wonderland, complete with a chocolate waterfall that makes the chocolate ‘lighter and more frothy,’ and big rock candy mountains. Wonka and his guests traverse the chocolate river in a pink, candy Viking longship, and along the way we are treated to various rooms where Wonka makes his outlandish candies, everything from the Everlasting Gobstopper to the 3-course meal chewing gum. Sadly, the Fizzy Lifting Drink doesn’t make an appearance this time around.
Any rendition of this story would be incomplete without the Oompa Loompas. The stuff of many a child’s nightmare, these strange pygmies are the lifeblood of Wonka’s factory, serving as both workers as well as experimental test subjects. While no less weird, Burton’s version of these mischievous little people dispenses with the Napoleonic clothes and purple face paint in exchange for Technicolor HAZMAT suits and coiffed hair. Their musical numbers are also more modern, foregoing the familiar ‘doopity-do’ in favor of Dahl’s original lyrics scored to Jazz and rock beats. They work, for the most part because Burton keeps them short.
And how is Depp’s performance as Wonka? Odd would be an accurate description, but creepy could be another. Depp publicly proclaimed that he channeled the spirit of Keith Richards for his role as Cap’n Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but he’s been curiously quiet about the source of his inspiration for Willy Wonka. It shouldn’t be hard for anyone who’s been exposed to any form of news media over the past year to figure it out. A certain white gloved, SARS mask wearing, baby dangling former pop star immediately springs to mind. Everything about Depp’s Wonka, from his effeminate voice, flamboyant outfits, and fantasyland fortress points to Jacko.
Depp is spot-on in the role. He’s just creepy enough to make you squirm in your seat, but bubbly enough to make you giggle and forgive him an instant later. He’s the kind of guy you’d let your kids sleep over with, only to regret it the next day. After a while, I was half expecting Depp to burst out, “You’re ignorant! You’re all just ignorant!” in response to the questions of the bratty kids. Burton may as well have titled the film, “Michael Jackson And The Neverland Ranch.” The rest of the cast, featuring Helena Bonham Carter (“Fight Club”) as Charlie’s mom and a digitally multiplied Deep Roy as the Oompa Loompas are solid, but they are firmly in the background.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” isn’t all sugar and sweetness, though. Burton doesn’t quite maintain the sense of wonder and mystery that overwhelms the first two-thirds of the film, and the last act feels like Burton is fishing for ideas. Also, the exploration of Willy’s family problems isn’t really handled with much success, leading to a somewhat weak ending. Still, the film is chock full of eye candy and the script has plenty of twisted humor to satisfy even the most salty viewer. Burton does a very good job of balancing the macabre with the jaunty to create a curious confection that’s sweet, yet just sour enough to make you give it a second taste.
Tim Burton (director) / Roald Dahl (book), John August (screenplay)
CAST: Johnny Depp …. Willy Wonka
Freddie Highmore …. Charlie Bucket
David Kelly …. Grandpa Joe
Helena Bonham Carter …. Mrs. Bucket
Noah Taylor …. Mr. Bucket
Missi Pyle …. Mrs. Beauregarde