by Steve Habrat
What a wonderful, wacky, and downright weird world that goth auteur Tim Burton crafts in the marvelous retelling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which stays furiously faithful to the 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Making a kaleidoscope trip into a world of neon candy and Busby Berkely-esque musical numbers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features tart laughs and sugary sweet lessons for the kiddies, all while bursting at the smokestack with imagination and (as usual) vision from Uncle Tim. In the wake of Johnny Depp’s breakout role as boozy pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Warner Brothers and Burton allow Depp to go straight bonkers with his portrayal of famed chocolate maker Willy Wonka, a grinning and (of course) misunderstood creep who talks like a valley girl and shudders at the mere sight of a child. Unlike Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka in the 1971 original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s version is much more bubbly and, dare I say, memorable than Wilder’s dry and conservative performance, which is a performance I do have quite a bit of respect for. But Depp’s Wonka had me in stitches far more than Wilder’s and I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the emotional wounds that Depp’s Wonka hides from the world behind giant bug-eyed sunglasses.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory introduces us to the poor but sweet Charlie Bucket (Played by Freddie Highmore), who happens to be a fanatic of mysertious candy maker Willy Wonka (Played by Johnny Depp). Charlie gets one chocolate bar a year from his warm mother (Played by Helena Bonham Carter) and father (Played by Noah Taylor), a treat that he heavily looks forward to. He shares the small chocolate bar with his live-in grandparents and while they munch, his Grandpa Joe (Played by David Kelly) shares stories about when he worked in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The cloistered Wonka suddenly makes an announcement to the world, declaring that he will allow five children into his world famous chocolate factory. To gain entry, they need to find a Golden Ticket hidden within the chocolate bars that fly off the shelf at an alarming rate. As the children who found tickets are revealed, they turn out to be spoiled rotten brats and know-it-alls who are far from deserving to have a tour of Wonka’s factory. After multiple attempts, Charlie finally gets his hands on a Golden Ticket and is accompanied to the factory by his Grandpa Joe. After a bizarre introduction to Willy Wonka, the group begins their tour of the astonishing factory, with the promise of a very special prize to one lucky child.
Much like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is jam packed with room after room of unrestrained imagination that acts as candy for the eyes. In each of these rooms, Wonka’s tiny employees called Oompa-Loompas treat us to tasty musical numbers. These musical numbers, which are taken from Dahl’s book, are brought to the screen by frequent Burton composer Danny Elfman and boy, are they a fiesta for the ear buds. They also turn out to be the one aspect of the film that is majorly flawed. Acting as a far-out ball of electronic, rock, swing, jazz, and literally every other musical genre you can think of and then some, Elfman’s execution of these songs features voice alteration of the Oompa-Loompas, all played by Deep Roy. At times, the lyrics are difficult to understand, the clarity buried under multiple effects and squealing instruments. Two numbers in particular will have you reaching for the remote to switch on subtitles or flipping through your copy of Dahl’s book.
In addition to trippy visuals, Depp’s Wonka is a real sight to behold. Acting as a creepy mix of valley girl and man-child, Depp’s Wonka does make you feel slightly uncomfortable, much like he does the parents of the children who are visiting his factory. He cringes when a child touches him and has no clue how to connect with one of the little sprouts. A sequence in which he discusses cannibalism with them is one of the highlights of the entire film. Depp’s Wonka also conceals a fractured relationship with his father, one that has caused them to sever contact with each other. Through flashbacks that are triggered by comments that the children make throughout their trip through the candy factory, we see how the relationship between the stern dentist Wilbur Wonka (Played by the booming Christopher Lee) and little Willy Wonka went sour. These scenes are effectively emotional, watching Wilbur forbid Willy to enjoy a sugary treat. Depp’s Wonka is a sympathetic misfit, especially when we learn why he has opened his factory doors to these children and that he does have a heart buried beneath all of his bitterness.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be nothing without its child actors who for the most part do a good job. Highmore is the true star as the kind and generous Charlie Bucket, who always thinks of others before himself. He is really incredible when he plays off of Depp, the two of them sharing interactions that are both funny and touching. Other standouts are Jordan Fry as Mike Teavee, who scowls through the entire tour of the factory and Julia Winter as the wealthy spoiled brat Veruca Salt, who wants everything she lays her peepers on. Philip Wiegratz as Agustus Gloop seems a bit coached by Burton, huffing and puffing through he dialogue but seeming like he is holding back a bit. AnnaSophia Robb as the overachieving smart-aleck Violet Beauregarde is effective in annoying the hell out of you but also seems a bit coached. The rest of the players, who are mostly there as the children’s parents, do a fine job at playing horrified when something happens to their child. The best is Adam Godley as the exasperated Mr. Teavee, who seems more puzzled by his own child rather than the spaced-out Wonka.
Overall, Burton’s film hits a few waves (the vocals in the music are the biggest disappointment and a few of the special effects could have used touching up) but this boat floats along quite smoothly on Wonka’s chocolate river. It’s a joy to watch Depp really allow his freak flag to fly (in many respects, I think he is having more fun as Wonka than he did as Jack Sparrow) and give you the willies. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also works because the terrific Highmore, who is always perfect while he gently guides the film along. The film has multiple nods to pop culture, ranging from The Beatles, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Busby Berkeley, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is no question that Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the weirder children’s movies you will ever see but it has only the best of intentions. It has a lasting warmth that comforts you like a blanket and has humor that will have you away for days. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not contain much depth, but it has a soul as sweet as sugar and frankly that is enough for me.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.