It would be hard to imagine a cinematic marriage more apt than one between Roald Dahl and Tim Burton. Both share an affection for the comically weird, the slightly malicious, the deliciously grotesque. So it’s a pleasure to report that Burton’s version of Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is true to the spirit of them both. True, it doesn’t achieve the heights of perverse lunacy one might have hoped (it isn’t the equal of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” for example), but especially in comparison to Mel Stuart’s decidedly clunky, half-hearted adaptation of a quarter-century ago, it’s a delectably strange morsel that mirrors the original’s odd combination of sweet and sour, though not in precisely the same proportions. And it springs a few Burtonesque surprises along the way, too–like clever allusions to both “Psycho” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the course of its perambulations.
The story, of course, hasn’t changed. Absurdly poor but utterly innocent Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) finds, in the most unlikely fashion, the last of five gold tickets hidden in chocolate bars that entitle their holders to a daylong visit to the highly secretive Willy Wonka candy factory (as well as a big surprise for the one child who takes the grand prize at the end). He’s accompanied there by his dotty but loving grandpa Joe (David Kelly), and their host is the odd, reclusive proprietor himself (Johnny Depp).
In the course of the tour, Charlie’s four rivals all meet dire but well-deserved fates–glutton Augustus Gloop falls in a chocolate river and is vacuumed out to the fudge room; greedy Veruca Salt is carried off to the garbage chute by nut-testing squirrels; gum-snapping Violet Beauregarde is turned into a balloon-like blueberry; and smarty-pants Mike Teavee is reduced to the size of a figure on a television screen. This leaves Charlie the winner of Wonka’s offer to take over the factory as his heir. Overall John August’s script is remarkably faithful to the tone and narrative of Dahl, though it naturally involves some tweaking in the forty-year old original (Mike Teavee now plays video games rather than watching westerns all the time). The fact that the other children suffer punishments suited to their peculiar character flaws remains, and if anything the emphasis on the centrality of family is even strengthened–the loving nature of Charlie’s brood of grandparents (and of his mother and father) is a major element, and the origin of Willy’s eccentricity in the circumstances of his youth (as a child he was refused sweets by his father, a gloomy dentist played by veteran Christopher Lee) is added.
And it goes without saying, since we’re talking about a Burton film, that all this has been visualized with incredible imagination and artistry. That’s not the case only with the factory sequences, which positively glow with colorful touches and oddball twists (and a helping of sterility when required, as in the “TV Room” episode), but perhaps even more in the “outside” scenes. The Bucket house, for instance, is a marvelously lopsided structure set apart from what otherwise looks like a Dickensian city (the production design by Alex McDowell and art direction led by Leslie Tomkins and Kevin Phipps create a lovely timeless ambience, and it’s beautifully captured by Philippe Rousselot’s exquisite cinematography). Certainly the picture is an almost continuous joy to behold–and, with Danny Elfman providing another engaging score, to listen to as well.
Still, there are aspects that keep “Charlie” from being the instant classic one might have hoped. One is the conception of the Wonka workers, the famous Oompa-Loompas. They’re all played, in an impressive feat of technical wizardry and computer duplication, by a single actor–Dep Roy. At first the idea’s a winning one, and Roy’s serious mien seems spot-on, but as the movie progresses it comes to seem a bit of a stunt; even worse, it’s difficult to hear the lyrics of the songs that the Oompa-Loompas sing after each bad child is disposed of–a real pity, because the snatches that are discernible are enjoyable. (The actual scenes of punishment usually stay on just this side of the grotesque, but in the case of Veruca’s encounter with those squirrels Burton can’t keep the line from being crossed–simply put, the sequence seems too real, and may actually frighten very young viewers.)
Then there’s the characterizations of the lesser folk on the factory trek. The kids (Philip Wiegratz as Augustus, Annasophia Robb as Violet, Julia Winter as Veruca and Jordon Fry as Mike) convey their individual awfulness pretty well (sometimes too much so–Winter and Fry in particular can be very annoying), but apart from James Fox as the snooty, rich Mr. Salt, the parents are less cleverly drawn, with Missi Pyle especially tiresome as Violet’s exercise-suited, big-eyed mother.
But the biggest problem lies in Depp’s Willy Wonka. As always, this admirable actor is obviously trying for something unexpected. He’s playing, as he has before, one of Burton’s typically alienated, unformed protagonists–a tall, lanky, almost ethereal outsider (see Jack Skellington in “Nightmare,” but also Depp’s own earlier turns as Edward Scissorhands and Ichabod Crane, and even as Ed Wood). But while in those earlier parts Depp exuded a soulfulness to go along with the man-child oddity, here the bizarre side is pretty much all he finds in the role (and as some have already noted, the visual similarity of this pale, almost ghostly figure to Michael Jackson is necessarily a mite creepy in historical context).
But the problem with the performance doesn’t affect Depp alone. It also undermines the relationship of Willy with Charlie, whom Highmore plays with a charming lack of sophistication. Depp and the young boy had a wonderful rapport in “Finding Neverland” that isn’t matched here simply because Wonka is played as so frigid and isolated a figure. On the other hand, the jovial, rail-thin Kelly contributes the warmth that’s lacking in the Willy-Charlie relationship, and so do Bonham Carter and Taylor as the boy’s supportive parents. Mention should also be made of Liz Smith, Eileen Essell and David Morris as Charlie’s other three grandparents–a slyly humorous trio in their permanent bed resting-place. And the picture represents another high-point in the late-career renaissance of Lee, whose imposing presence here (as in “The Lord of he Rings” and the latest “Star Wars” movies) is testimony to the fact that all these now-prominent directors knew and loved him from watching the Hammer “Dracula” movies back in the fifties and sixties.
In sum, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” strives for a magical quality it doesn’t always achieve, but the attempt succeeds often enough to make the tour one you should take.