Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is enough to make any fan of Roald Dahl's most beloved novel cry — with delight at all the film gets so magically right, and with frustration that, in spite of its winsome appeal, the film is still nearly ruined by Burton's obsessions and a spectacularly miscalculated performance by star Johnny Depp.
No one but Burton could possibly have so perfectly nailed Dahl's blend of whimsical fantasy and withering comeuppance, or the Dickensian glee and extravagance of its morality-play tableau, with abject poverty and decency lavishly rewarded while excess, gluttony and decadence are mercilessly punished.
And no one but Burton could possibly have thought it would be a good idea to give candymaker extraordinare Willy Wonka unresolved issues from childhood stemming from a traumatic relationship with his dentist father, leaving Wonka unable to say the words “family” or “parents,” and subject to disorienting childhood flashbacks.
But when the climax and denouement have played out and the scenes keep coming, there can be no doubt that Tim Burton has driven his film off the rails.
Meanwhile, who on earth could have thought it was a good idea to have Johnny Depp play Willy Wonka with deathly pale-gray makeup framed by a black bob? Did anybody but Depp himself think that his portrayal of Wonka as an emotionally stunted, antisocial misfit with a chilly nervous giggle, who delivers lines like “Let's boogey” and “You're really weird” as if coining new catchphrases, was an improvement over Dahl's character? As badly as Gene Wilder botched the role in the modestly entertaining 1971 film, this is worse.
Yet take out Wonka, and what's left is little short of brilliant, far outstripping the 1971 film. From young Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore, who previously co-starred with Depp in Finding Neverland), his extended family and their crazy ramshackle house, to the wonders of Wonka's factory, including the Oompa-Loompas and their zany musical numbers, to the over-the-top rottenness of the other four children (and for the most part their parents), this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is both faithful and inspired, true both to the spirit and the letter of the book, even as it goes beyond it in ways. It's so good, it has the makings of a modern family classic, the dark childhood fantasy that all the Harry Potter films and Lemony Snicket are trying to be.
And yet at the center of it all is one of the best actors in Hollywood working as hard as he can to ruin the film, aided and abetted by tacked-on excursions into yet another cinematic rehashing of Tim Burton's father-figure issues (Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands).
For those who haven't read the book, allow me to introduce you to a character you won't meet in either film: Mr. Willy Wonka. As Dahl introduces him, we learn of “marvelously bright” eyes “twinkling and sparkling at you all the time” in a face “alight with fun and laughter.” Dahl rhapsodizes about “how clever he looked,” how “quick and sharp and full of life,” in his movements “like a quick, clever old squirrel at the park.”
He looks and behaves, in fact, like a diminutive, hyperactively excitable Santa Claus welcoming visitors to a North Pole workshop of candy rather than toys. For some inexplicable reason, it's a characterization neither film version comes within a million miles of.
Wilder's Wonka in the earlier film was the polar opposite of Dahl's: low-key and detached, quietly self-amused, less like a “clever old squirrel” than an inscrutable, capricious cat, politely disdainful, seemingly friendly, but with ready claws.
Now Depp takes the character in a direction at right angles to both Dahl's and Wilder's versions. Dahl's Wonka was genuinely friendly; Wilder's Wonka at least knew how to fake it. Depp's character doesn't. In fact, he's so socially dysfunctional, he has no idea how to make a speech of welcome or respond to basic questions without a stack of note cards from which he reads as mechanically as a first-grader sounding out Dr. Seuss.
On one level, of course, only fans of the book will be bothered by the film's radical reinterpretation of the character — though it's a crying shame that the film bothers to be so brilliantly true to the book in almost every other respect, only to subvert it so thoroughly in this one crucial respect. Yet will anyone, even newcomers to the story, find this Willy Wonka engaging, interesting, or in any way appealing?
Although the creep factor of Depp's Wonka is real, the effect is somewhat exaggerated by external factors, including timing and Depp's previous roles.
Recent events make it nearly impossible, watching this film, not to think of another emotionally stunted, reclusive millionaire child-man with pale skin and black hair who built a fantasy wonderland for himself and then invited children into it. The “Neverland” connection of Depp's last film, in which he played yet another emotionally stunted child-man who created fantasy worlds — and was explicitly suspected of pedophilia — doesn't help matters. Yet there's no hint in Depp's brittle performance of Michael Jackson's mannerisms or speech patterns.
And the rest of the film is good enough that it may be worth gritting one's teeth and looking past Willy Wonka. From the hyper-competitiveness of Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie) — and of her ex-cheerleader mother, who competes vicariously through her daughter — to the aggressive, impatient computer-game mentality of video junkie Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), the film's cautionary satire hits bull's-eyes.
The casting — again, Depp aside — is perfect. Old David Kelly (Waking Ned Devine) is note-perfect as Grandpa Joe, and Indian actor Deep Roy (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) brings solemn dignity to the role of all 100 Oompa-Loompas, whose show-stopping musical numbers, composed by longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman with lyrics drawn (unlike those of the “Oompa Loompa Song” of the earlier film) straight from Dahl, made me want to stand up and cheer. If only the camera didn't keep coming back to Depp every time the music winds down.
Content advisory: Some unsettling images and mild menace to children; an instance of minor profanity; one grating MTV rock-video type musical number. Not for sensitive children.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.