Title: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Family
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: John August
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kel
The match-up of director Tim Burton and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was almost too perfect, the sort of project that sets unreasonable expectations and is bound to hit an unexpected snag. I mean, come on: the director of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands taking on the cooky, candy-colored, funhouse Road Dahl novel, with no less than Johnny Depp — master of the gloriously eccentric in front of the camera — reprising the Gene Wilder role from the 1971 classic? It’s too good. Too good to be true.
And indeed this incarnation of Charlie isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be, as Burton gets off to a great start but then lets his movie deflate, disappointingly, until little is left except a gaudy, admittedly imaginative circus. Somewhere between the lovely, understated opening and the absurdly sappy conclusion, he loses the heart of the tale, going off in any number of directions and ending up with his focus trained squarely on the wrong character.
Burton ditches the sappy, straight-up musical numbers of the Mel Stuart original, replacing them with a series of over-the-top Oompa-Loompa extravaganzas. This time around, all of the Loompas — and there seem like thousands — are played by the same actor, replicated digitally: Burton veteran Deep Roy, who must now be considered the hardest-working actor in the business. This is in compliance with the director’s general strategy of turning each of the story’s concepts up to 11, and the middle of the film is a delirious frenzy.
Reigning over the madness, essentially, is Johnny Depp, who returns to a somewhat different incarnation of the bizarre, demented persona he unveiled in Pirates of the Caribbean. His casting in the role was a brilliant, if not unexpected (Burton loves him) move; the alternative was Christopher Walken, which sounds great too, but is obvious in the same way that having Burton direct is obvious. Michael Jackson comparisons notwithstanding, Depp brings a genuine verve to the role: more than just suggestively sinister a la Wilder, he makes Wonka into an utter creepy/lovable loon, turning his lines — often strange and funny in and of themselves — into outright symphonies of oddity. Listen for the one about cannibalism.
Depp owns the second act, as I mentioned (though he shares it with Roy, some of the kids, and Missi Pyle as a hilarious mom); the first belongs to Burton’s effortless skill behind the camera. The opening scenes, before the movie goes off the deep end, are wonderful almost beyond words: bursting with goodness and charm, they tell the story of a poor but cheerful little boy (Freddie Highmore), hoping against hope to find one of the five Golden Tickets in the solitary chocolate bar he gets on his birthday. Burton doesn’t pander, sentimentalize, or add flourishes; his approach is direct and straightforward, and as he has proven before (yes, I liked Planet of the Apes), he doesn’t need to be quirky to excel. In this case, he may have been better served by staying the course, as the first forty minutes are by far the highlight of the film.
The finale, by contrast, belongs to no one. It represents a misguided and inexplicable attempt to resolve Willy Wonka’s daddy issues, irrevocably shattering the enigma of the character and turning the movie — which refuses to end — into a sappy, awkward treatise on the importance of family. It’s an unfortunate development in what (I insist) rightfully seemed like a match made in heaven, and instead of being the oddball masterpiece I was expecting, it ends as a fitfully quirky, seriously problematic set of experiments.