Depp lifts Burton’s Chocolate Factory but not past the first Wonka
Many critics to this day deride it, and author Roald Dahl reportedly hated it, but 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a classic, pure and simple.
Though the film was almost too sugary sweet, it had the edge of a cautionary tale about overindulgent parents that children respected. Then of course there was Gene Wilder’s inspired lunacy as Wonka. Over the past 35 years, no other director has matched director Tim Burton’s ability to balance the bitter and the sweet. His films “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” are classics themselves.
So Burton was a natural choice to resurrect “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” (the book title), yet fans of Wonka panicked nonetheless. Why mess with a flawed but irrepressibly beloved original? And how dare they tinker with the music?
Two words: Johnny Depp.
If Burton was the obvious choice to direct, Depp was probably the only actor alive who commands enough respect for his character choices to give the film giant curiosity.
The new film follows the book more closely than does the original. Burton’s images are as one would expect: strangely fascinating. Depp is a wonder, dropping one liners while decked out in a circus ringmaster/mortician outfit with a top hat that covers a blackish pageboy and shiny pearly whites fitted to give him a bizarre overbite.
We see Willy’s chilling upbringing at the hands of his dentist Father (a sinister Christopher Lee), which explains his penchant for chocolate and some of his social ineptness. In turn, Wonka grows up to become the candy-maker recluse who opens his factory to five lucky winners who find a golden ticket hidden in one of millions of Wonka bars sold around the globe. The first four winners are truly repulsive children, including the gluttonous Augustus (Phillip Wiegratz), the greedy rich brat Veruca (Julia Winter), gum-chewing overachiever Violet (Annasophia Robb) and Mike (Jordan Fry) the video-game addict (updated for our generation).
The final recipient is the penniless but heart-of-gold youngster Charlie, played wondrously by Freddie Highmore, still beaming from the chemistry he and Depp shared in “Finding Neverland.” He lives in a dilapidated hovel near the factory with his mum (Helena Bonham Carter), his papa (Noah Taylor), and his four grandparents who share the same bed. He brings Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) to the fanciful, celebratory tour where the lucky few get to see what makes Wonka tick.
As each of the unruly children get their comeuppance, Wonka’s Oompa Loompas (actor Deep Roy digitally duplicated) break into song with lyrics faithfully lifted from Dahl’s book. The numbers seem influenced by the old Hollywood musicals, offering a nice contrast to the stern, unwavering expression on Deep Roy’s face. But we don’t come out humming their tunes.
And that’s the only real problem here. Perhaps it was the era or the sheer uniqueness of the original, but the memory of the 1971 film haunts Burton’s undeniably masterful vision. Though Dahl might have preferred Burton’s interpretation– despite a sweet family friendly twist at the end– there was something magical about that first take.
As in life, sometimes on film you can never go home again.
Rated PG (for quirky situations, action and mild language)