If the first Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory served as a delightful psychedelic freak-out with Gene Wilder’s gobstopping candymaker as scolding guide, Tim Burton’s more lavish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory full movie—driven by Johnny Depp’s eccentric, parent-hating Wonka—is akin to a disappointingly tame acid trip.
With characters whose countenances have been strangely airbrushed with not-very-human glossiness, Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ tale is both more polished and sinister than Mel Stuart’s 1971 version, offering a dash of the surreal, a dollop of the bizarre, and a healthy dose of the grotesque as it recounts the magical tour of Wonka’s chocolate factory taken by four spoilt brats and poor, good-hearted Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly). But saccharine timidity is what’s really served up by this cinematic summer bonbon, as the director seems unwilling to fully commit to the menacing nastiness that was always the most intriguing aspect of Dahl’s beloved tale. Burton’s Wonka is a kook, there’s no doubt about that, but with a traumatic childhood backstory that explains the root causes of the chocolatier’s eccentricities, and with an unexpectedly docile tone that’s more strange than petrifying, his foray to the famous factory becomes something of a gooey mess.
Not that this newest Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie isn’t still, in many aspacts, superior to the first movie. Thankfully gone are the awful song-and-dance numbers performed by Charlie’s mom, Grandpa Joe, and Wonka, all of which have been replaced by wonderful musical numbers (scored with grace by Danny Elfman) choreographed by the latex suit-wearing Oompa Loompas (Deep Roy) at the end of each tyke’s departure.
While none of these compositions is likely to make one forget the Oompa Loompas’ signature ditty, their lyrics’ suggestion that Wonka has designed the unfortunate demise of gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), spoiled Brit Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), fat Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), and video game-junkie Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry) brings about an undercurrent of mischievous mayhem that one wishes was further exploited.
Thanks to production design (by Alex McDowell) that regularly creates terror from assembly line imagery, Charlie’s slanty-angled shanty home and Wonka’s cocoa waterfall room—where everything, including gigantic Alice in Wonderland mushrooms, is edible—exhibit a Dali-esque oddness that’s at the same time luring and off-putting.
These and other funhouse-mirror wonders are playfully kid-unfriendly, from the weirdly disturbing animatronic puppet show (replete with an impromptu fiery finale) that Wonka prepares for his amazed guests, to the brief snippets of Veruca, Violet, and Mike’s home lives that neatly elucidate the selfish beastliness stemmed from overly permissive parenting.
Playing the role of Willy Wonka, Johnny Depp comes across like the bastard son of The Joker and an extraterrestrial mannequin, his pasty face, perfectly styled brown hair, and top hat giving him a clown-gone-scary look that complements his oddly cheerless smile, bug eyes, and gawky, stilted acts.
One of Burton’s typical outsider protagonists, Wonka is bestowed with a plethora of snippy lines (the best of which involve accusing Mike Teavee of mumbling), and when he’s allowed to run with his character’s man-child weirdness—such as during an impromptu jig during an Oompa Loompa concert—the actor locates the socially retarded recluse cowering underneath Wonka’s carnival barker exterior.
Big Fish scribe John August’s script, however, saddles Willy Wonka with flashbacks to his poor youth as the orthodontia equipment-adorned son of a dentist (the brilliantly casted Christopher Lee), and such exposition not only saps the candy mogul of his creepy mysteriousness, but eventually leads to a new ending that alters the thematic focus from that of kids’ (and adults’) monstrousness to the virtue of familial togetherness.
Coupled with Burton’s wishy-washy decision to show the bad kids emerging from the factory at film’s conclusion (rather than having them remain off-screen as in the first Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, which subtly implied that they’d perished), the film exudes an air of apprehension, as if afraid to push the boundaries of PG creepiness lest it excessively upset its under-15 audience. Whereas it should be scary, this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie instead turns out to be just sickly sweet.