Willy Wonka

I was really worried about seeing Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - what if I hated it? Could I ever forgive Burton and Johnny Depp for mucking up one of my most beloved childhood memories? But I needn't have worried. Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sublime sugarplum of a remake, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Depp (and let me just disclose upfront that he is one of my very favorite actors, and I've liked him in almost every film he's ever done) is the only current actor I could envision taking on the role made famous by Gene Wilder, and he does so with verity. I've heard people say they think Burton's version is less dark than the original; I don't see that, myself. While this film is not, perhaps, as shadowy as one might hope and expect from a Burton film, it's certainly not all sunshine and sugar-coated light. Depp plays Wonka with a slighty psychotic and off-kilter edge, heavily evoking Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, but tempered by a child-like innocence. Kinda like Michael Jackson, but without the creepiness. 

 

Depp was not the only actor vying for the coveted role. Michael Keaton, Nicolas Cage, Christopher Walken, Steve Martin and Robin Williams were all reportedly considered, and goth-rocker Marilyn Manson is said to have badly wanted the part. Depp, in fact, is rumored to have modeled his Wonka after Manson. Depp ultimately makes the role his own, though, bringing a depth and quirky thoughtfulness to the role that pays homage to Wilder's version of Wonka without mirroring it. Burton was also not the only director attached to the film; Martin Scorsese was also attached at one point (now that would have been a very different film!).

Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie, ups the ante on his excellent turn in Depp's Finding Neverland with an absolutely flawless performance. Depp convinced Burton to hire Highmore for the role after working with him on Neverland. Highmore's Charlie Bucket is absolutely believeable and so earnest and likeable, you just wanted to cheer out loud for him when he finally found that coveted final Golden Ticket. Memo to Shark Boy and Lava Girl director Robert Rodriguez: This is a child actor - one who can actually act. Next time you direct a movie, you might try to find one.

It is winter, and cold and gray and snowing in the real world where Charlie and his family live in a one-room shack on watery cabbage soup. Inside Wonka's fortress of a chocolate factory, all is a cacophony of Oz-like saturated color. All the familiar characters are there: piggish chocoholic Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), bad nut Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), hyper-competitive Violet Beauragard (Annasophia Robb, showing off her acting chops here in a big departure from her previous sweetness-and-light roles) and rude, brainiac video game addict Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry).

Of these young actors, only Robb has prior acting credits, but they all turned in nice performances; Winter especially I expect to see more of. Robb had the strongest performance of the four, playing the contemptable Violet flawlessly. Film vet David Kelly puts his nearly 50 years of experience to good use, playing Charlie's beloved Grandpa Joe to perfection.

The film moves along at a fairly lively clip, and there are many subtly funny moments targeted more at the adults in the crowd than the kids. My favorite line? When Depp deadpans, "Everything here is eatable. I'm eatable, but that, my children, is called cannibalism and it is frowned upon in most societies."

The special effects, of course, have the advantage over the original, with the advent of computers and digitization, and they rock - but then again, Wonka's factory looked scrumptious in the original too. Everything from the grass to the candy apples to the chocolate river and waterfall looks good enough to eat. 

As for the directing, well, I've long been convinced that Tim Burton is either a genius or certifiably insane. Certainly he has a particular way of looking at the world that is unique in the realm of filmmaking, and you couldn't ask for a more appropriate choice of director to remake this film. Just imagine this film in the hands of Robert Rodriguez (Look! It's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - in 3-D! - Glasses on!), and you'll more fully appreciate the sense and sensibility Burton brings to this film. The score, by Danny Elfman, is absolutely perfect - some of his best work, and Elfman has done a lot of good music for films.

The Oompa Loompas (played by diminuitve actor Deep Roy and his digitized clones) kind of creeped me out, as they did in the original movie, but hey, they're supposed to creep you out. We get to learn a little more about the Oompa Loompas and how they came to live in the chocolate factory, and the songs and dances, especially the one where they're dressed up in 80s glamour rock, had the grown-ups in the theater howling.

I don't always watch my fellow filmgoers while I'm watching a film, but in this case I couldn't help sneaking peeks around to gauge the reactions of the other adults to the film. The kids loved it, of course, but the real test was the adults. Pretty much everyone around me was mesmerized - laughing out loud at the dialouge and the Oompa Loompas, intrigued by Depp's performance.

We get to learn more about Willy Wonka's sweet-deprived background in Burton's version, with a storyline about Wonka's childhood (created specifically for this film, with the ever-fabulous Christopher Lee in the role Of Dr. Wonka, a dentist) that both drives and explains Wonka as Depp portrays him. I'm not sure this was a good choice - I think I would have preferred the whys and wherefores of Wonka's oddness to remain a mystery, and this is one of the few things I didn't like about the film.

Burton may be guilty of having a bit too much of a sweet-tooth about the ending, especially for fans who are expecting it to end on a more melancholy and bittersweet note,  but the film, overall, is spectacular, and left me wanting to see it again and again. Catch this one at the theater to see it in all its technicolor glory on the big screen, then buy it when it comes out on DVD, because you, and your kids, will want to see this one many times. It may not supplant Wilder and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from your heart, but it certainly deserves a place right alongside it.