Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie is enough to make any fan of Roald Dahl’s most well-known book burst into tears — with delight at all the movie gets so magically right, and with frustration that despite that the film is still almost ruined by Burton’s obsessions and a spectacularly miscalculated performance by star Johnny Depp.
I’m sure only Burton can pull off so perfectly Dahl’s whimsical fantasy and withering comeuppance, or the Dickensian joyful and extravagance of its morality-play picture, with abject poverty and decency lavishly rewarded while excess and surfeit and decadence are ruthlessly punished.
Furthermore, perhaps only he could have thought it would be a good idea to give Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) problematic issues from childhood resulting from a traumatic relationship with his father (Christopher Lee!), making Wonka unable to say the words “family” or “parents,” and subject to disorienting childhood flashbacks. When the novel’s climax and denouement have taken place, and the credits will soon roll, and the movie suddenly invents additional obstacles to delay the hero’s reward, then jumps to a scene with the other most prominent character on a psychiatrist’s couch, can there be any doubt that the movie has gone off the rails?
And who would have thought it was a good idea to have Johnny Depp play Willy Wonka with deathly pale-grey makeup coupled with a black bob? Did anybody but Depp himself think that his portrayal of Wonka as an emotionally stunted, antisocial misfit with a chilly nervous giggle, who delivers lines like “Let’s boogey” and “You’re really weird” as if coining new punchlines, was an upgrade over Dahl’s character? As dreadful as Gene Wilder took the role in 1971, this is worse.
Yet take out Wonka, and what’s left is little short of brilliant, far outstripping the 1971 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film. From young Charlie Bucket (played Freddy Highmore from Finding Neverland), his huge family, and their insane ramshackle house, to the amazements of Wonka’s factory, including the Oompa-Loompas and their mesmerizing musical score, to the over-the-top rottenness of the other four children (and for the most part their parents), this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is both faithful and inspired, stick to both the spirit of the book even as it goes beyond it in ways. It’s so good, it has the makings of a modern family classic, the dark childhood fantasy that all the Harry Potter films and Lemony Snicket are trying to be.
And yet at the center of it all is one of the best actors in Hollywood working as hard as he can to ruin Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, aided and abetted by tacked-on excursions into yet another cinematic rehashing of Tim Burton’s father figure issues (cf. Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands).
For those who haven’t read the book, allow me to introduce you to a character you won’t meet in either film: Mr. Willy Wonka. As Dahl introduces him, we learn of “marvelously bright” eyes “twinkling and sparkling at you all the time” in a face “alight with fun and laughter.” Dahl rhapsodizes about “how clever he looked,” how “quick and sharp and full of life,” in his movements “like a quick, clever old squirrel at the park.” On seeing the children, he does a “funny skipping dance” and calls out to them in a “high flutey voice.” He’s delighted to meet them all — and their parents — and “clearly just as excited as everyone else.”
He looks and acts like a slender, hyperactively glee Santa Claus proudly welcoming guests to a North Pole workshop of candy rather than toys. For some inexplicable reason, it’s a characterization neither film version to date comes within a million miles of.
Wilder’s Wonka was almost the exact opposite of Dahl’s work, low-key and ironic. Depp, on the other hand, takes the character in a direction at right angles to both Dahl’s and Wilder’s versions. Dahl’s Wonka was truly genuine whereas Wilder’s Wonka knew how to fake it for the very least but Depp’s character doesn’t try or even learn how to do it. In fact, he’s so socially dysfunctional, he has no clue how to make a speech of welcome or respond to basic questions without a stack of note cards from which he reads as mechanically as a first grader reading Dr. Seuss.
It’s ironic that where the 1971 film was called Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, this one takes the name of the original novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, even though the climax of the story the moviemakers wish to tell is no longer Charlie’s moral triumph or earning reward, but Willy Wonka’s emotional healing and life lessons learned about the actual meaning of family.
On one level, only fans of the novel will be bothered by the movie’s radical reconstruction of the character — even though it’s a shame that the picture bothers to be so brilliantly true to the novel in almost every other way, only to subvert it so thoroughly in this one essential aspect. Yet will anyone, even newcomers to the story, find this Willy Wonka engaging, interesting, or an any way appealing? Are Wonka’s childhood problems really capture anyone but Burton and Depp?
The creepiness of Depp’s Wonka is there, for certain, but the effect is somewhat overkill by external factors that include timing and Depp’s past choices. As Roger Ebert astutely watches, that Depp has acknowledged that his performance in Pirates of the Caribbean was loosely inspired by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has primed us to seek inspirations here as well.
And, as it occurs, recent events make it too challenging, watching this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, not to think of another emotionally stunted, reclusive millionaire child-man with pale skin and black hair who created a fantasy wonderland for himself and then invited kids into it. The “Neverland” connection of Depp’s last film, in which he played yet another emotionally stunted child-man who created fantasy worlds — and was explicitly suspected of pedophilia — doesn’t help matters. Yet there’s no hint in Depp’s brittle performance of Michael Jackson’s mannerisms or speech patterns.
And the rest of the picture is good enough that it’s worth gritting one’s teeth and forrgeting Willy Wonka. From the overly-competitiveness of Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie) — and of her ex-cheerleader mother, who competes vicariously through her daughter — to the scary, impatient computer-game mentality of video geek Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), the movie’s cautionary satire hits bullseyes.
The casting — again, aside from Depp— is brilliant. Old David Kelly (Waking Ned Devine) is flawless as Grandpa Joe, and Indian actor Deep Roy (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) brings solemn dignity to the role of all 100 Oompa-Loompas, whose brilliant musical score, composed by Danny Elfman to lyrics drawn (unlike those of the “Oompa Loompa Song” of the earlier Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie) straight from Dahl, made me want to stand up and clap. If only the camera didn’t keep coming back to Depp every time the music winds down.