July 15, 2005
Review: ‘Charlie’ Remake Is Sweet
A big studio film that really works. A remake that improves on the original. Hollywood is truly in fantasy land with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Tim Burton's wildly imaginative take on Roald Dahl's beloved children's book.
This is the sort of visual feast Burton was born to make. It's a film packed with chaste delights for young children and plenty of sophisticated, cryptic edge to entertain and puzzle their parents.
Then there's Johnny Depp. As candy man Willy Wonka, Depp puts such a distinct, strange, wondrous and sometimes creepy stamp on this social misfit, Gene Wilder's portrayal in the 1971 original almost looks like a button-down 9-to-5 Nestle's exec by comparison.
Just as Depp hoisted "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" from a pleasantly dopey action comedy to an Academy Award-level performance piece, he elevates this elegantly simple tale into Burton's most human film since their collaborations on "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands."
In this era of mediocre to atrocious remakes, parents who grew up enamored of Wilder's "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" should be justly dubious. But Wilder's version wasn't all that hot, suffering from hokey songs and sometimes cheesy production values, while its occasional psychedelic flashes, corny back then, now make the movie seem like a quaint relic.
Like other Burton fantasies, his version feels timeless, Depp's disturbing similarities to Michael Jackson notwithstanding. It's hard to imagine anyone looking back on the movie 30 years from now and finding its visual panache chintzy, while the fairy-tale texture of both the chocolate factory and the real world surrounding it root the entire movie in dreamland.
The difference between the two movies is apparent from the opening credits, both featuring candy in mass production. "Willy Wonka" features conventional machinery spitting out chocolate; "Charlie" has a pure flight-of-fancy assembly line in which balloons lovingly waft each chocolate bar to the wrapping area.
Wonka, a recluse who closed his factory gates 15 years ago, sets the world in a tizzy when he announces that five golden tickets will be wrapped inside his chocolate bars, earning the finders a lifetime supply of candy and a tour of the plant.
The winners are four odious brats and goodhearted Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, Depp's "Finding Neverland" co-star), an impoverished boy who lives with his parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor) and both sets of grandparents in an impossibly crooked house.
Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) join the tour, a progression of hilarious comeuppances for his four co-winners and their equally repugnant parents.
The factory is a dazzling explosion of color, and the movie refreshingly minimizes the use of computer-generated effects in favor of real sets and props.
Wilder's Wonka was a bit of a gruff carnival barker. Depp plays him as another in a line of emotional outsiders, a brilliant yet stunted personality blending traces of his manic Ed Wood and cluelessly innocent Edward Scissorhands with the clipped softspokeness of children's show host Fred Rogers.
Depp's demure voice combines with the character's pasty complexion, perfectly bobbed locks, neo-Victorian garb and androgynous air to present a sometimes disturbing reflection of pop singer Jackson, recently acquitted on child-molestation charges.
Some may find the resemblance off-putting, yet it adds a fascinating subtext to compare and contrast a real reclusive celebrity who likes children too much with a make-believe one who blanches at the proximity of youngsters.
Screenwriter John August provides flashbacks explaining that Wonka's fixation for sweets and anti-social tendencies stem from a stern upbringing by his dentist father (Christopher Lee).
Highmore solidifies his reputation as one of the finest child actors in the business, sharing earnest chemistry with both Depp and Kelly. Bonham Carter and Taylor squeeze tremendous warmth and sentiment out of relatively small roles.
Among the secondary players, Julia Winter as horridly acquisitive Veruca Salt and James Fox as her father are standouts, so blissfully obnoxious that their hilarious expulsion from the tour becomes that much more gleeful.
Like the first movie, Burton's version suffers from musical cutesiness with jarring, annoying tunes written and sung by Danny Elfman (the one catchy song accompanies Veruca's departure).
The musical numbers are performed by the Oompa Loompas, diminutive laborers who run Wonka's factory. Burton chose to have one actor, Deep Roy, play all the Oompa Loompas, an unfortunate choice that injects one of the only instances of bland sameness into an otherwise multi-flavored confection.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG for quirky situations, action and mild language. Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.
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