The wondrous surfaces have a weird undercurrent that won’t go away in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Tim Burton’s richly elaborated take on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. Entertaining and fabulously imaginative in many ways, this second bigscreen rendition of the late author’s modest morality tale on the wages of unbridled excess sports excesses of its own. Still, most discussion will inevitably center on Johnny Depp’s utterly eccentric performance as reclusive chocolate magnate Willy Wonka. Kids as well as many adult fans of the star and director should combine to make the Warner Bros. release a sizable hit (if distrib could do it with “The Polar Express,” it should be able to do it with this). But a fair number of grown-ups might find themselves becoming more preoccupied by film’s inscrutable subtext than by the repetitive story itself.
In a role imagined by Dahl as ideal for the late British comedian Spike Milligan and played in 1971 by Gene Wilder, Depp, who channeled Keith Richards to great effect in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” here inescapably comes across as a close relation to Michael Jackson — intentionally or not. The fastidious pseudo-Edwardian garb, lavender gloves, walking stick, immaculately bobbed hair, androgynous air, inhumanly bluish porcelain skin and childish intonations, along with his often snippy and literally dismissive attitude toward the kids he invites into his fabulous domain, create an oddness as likely to give pause as to enchant.
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The very idea of remaking the original film, released by Paramount as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” is sacrilegious to some who grew up on it, although it is hard to overlook that film’s lackluster musical numbers and complete lack of visual style. Burton’s entry is scarcely deficient in the latter category, as “Charlie” rates as one of the most riotous explosions of color since “The Gang’s All Here,” and the advanced sophistication of effects makes so much possible now that was inconceivable three decades back.
Dazzling opening credits sequence, a detailing of the chocolate manufacturing process set to throbbing musical accompaniment, instantly creates high expectations, which are indeed fulfilled for the first 35 minutes. In an unnamed great industrial city very much like London, little Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, Depp’s splendid co-star in “Finding Neverland”) lives an emotionally warm but physically threadbare existence with his parents and two sets of grandparents in a ramshackle shack. This structure itself is a twisted marvel of design worthy of a great German Expressionist film, its occupants a lively lot deftly caricatured by superior thesps.
Burton excels at the barbed exposition. In bold, controlled brush strokes, he reveals how Charlie has long heard the tale of Willy Wonka from his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), who toiled at the factory until all the workers were dismissed 15 years ago. Since then, chocolate production has continued apace, but no one knows how, and not a soul has glimpsed the owner himself.
Suddenly, a contest is announced in which five kids who find special gold tickets hidden in Wonka chocolates will be invited to go on a personal tour of the enormous factory to be conducted by the mysterious tycoon. In pithy and amusing fashion, pic renders the international frenzy the competition sets off, as the parents in privileged families buy up thousands of candy bars to indulge their sprigs while Charlie’s family can only muster enough money to give him one chance at the gold.
The first four winners are dreadful brats: There’s German fatso Augustus Gloop, who stuffs his face with chocolate all day; snotty Brit aristo Veruca Salt, who’s every whim is Daddy’s command; gum-chewing Yank brat Violet Beauregarde, whose mom is an older carbon copy; and American Southern smart-ass Mike Teavee, a violent videogame freak.
All these loathsome creatures, accompanied by one parent, are spoiled, self-centered, ill-mannered louts set up as the fully deserving recipients of Willy Wonka’s unexpected, sadistic streak and rep Dahl’s comment on the undisciplined indulgence of the privileged classes. Deprived Charlie, who miraculously becomes the fifth winner, seems a simple saint by comparison, and he shows up with Grandpa Joe outside the Wonka factory on a wintry day in breathless anticipation of his reward.
But just when the film seems poised to take flight with Depp’s entrance and its “Wizard of Oz”-like passage from the deliberately muted “real” world into Wonka’s fantastical one, it begins deflating. Having been out of contact with other human beings for 15 years can perhaps explain Wonka’s curious quirks, strange pronouncements and his blanching whenever approached by the kids, whose entreaties often provoke his instant disdain. But the flashbacks invented by scenarist John August to show the boy Willy’s falling out with his dentist father (Christopher Lee) only raise the question of why the adult Willy lost his English accent.
As the factory tour proceeds from one extraordinary chamber to another — the first of production designer Alex McDowell’s fanciful creations features hills and dales of green riven by a river of chocolate — one child visitor after another is “eliminated” in semi-gruesome fashion. Unfortunately, these richly deserved comeuppances become successively less amusing, and they continue with musical production number accompaniment that similarly starts out smartly but rapidly pales.
These song-and-dance interludes feature the Oompa-Loompas, diminutive creatures Wonka imported from a dismal foreign habitat to fill his labor needs. This aspect of Dahl’s 1964 story has always had a slightly discomfiting colonialist tinge to it, an impression scarcely diminished in Burton’s handling. Casting of a single actor, Deep Roy, to be visually multiplied to portray all the Oompa-Loompas, initially seems audacious but becomes tiresome, even though composer Danny Elfman (who also provides the vocals) works hard to give each tune a strong musical definition.
Before the trip is over, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has gone from delectable to curdled, and Depp’s performance has shrunk from bizarrely riveting to one-note and vaguely creepy, turning Willy Wonka into yet another of Burton’s antisocial weirdoes. But then this is scarcely the first time a Burton film has started out great only to lose its way with fanciful doodlings and lack of secure moorings.
As usual with the director, pic is immaculately made, with invention to be found in every corner and every scene. Casting of all the supporting roles is terrific.
Film’s wide release July 15 will be accompanied by simultaneous engagements in Imax theaters.