How can anyone not see it? The squeaky voice, the pasty face, the outlandish wardrobe, all for a reclusive man-child, tucked away in a secluded wonderland? Why would you make Willy Wonka resemble the recently acquitted King of Pop, Michael Jackson, as do director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp in the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”? With every person young and old thinking back to their marvelous first experience with the timeless, bizarre fairy tale, Burton and Depp fail to deliver what should have been a surefire hit.
Depp plays the always erratic and, in this case, psychotic chocolatier Willy Wonka, a solitaire with a candy-making passion. Enter the thoughtful Charlie (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland”), a few brats and a contest to determine who will be the heir to Wonka’s throne, and you get the basic idea.
Typical of Burton’s (“Big Fish”) style, this version of “Charlie” is quirky and borderline creepy. Aside from the strange portrayal of Wonka, the Oompa Loompas are all freakishly similar, the songs are hip to today’s culture and there’s a dark side to Wonka’s past not explored in Dahl’s book or the first film starring Gene Wilder. It’s this dark side — Wonka as the son of a sadistic dentist who never allowed him to have sweets as a child — that turns Wonka into the wacko that he is in the film.
Sad as this is, it seems irrelevant, because the story here is about Charlie and his innocence finally being rewarded. By throwing a psychopath in for the ride and inevitably having to humanize him, Burton goes away from what he intended to do — have the story center on Charlie and not Wonka (hence the name change from Wilder’s film) — and the result is disappointing. To everyone’s surprise, the weakest point in the movie is Depp, who brings little to his iconic role. His lines are poorly written and lack the punch packed by Wilder’s quips from 1971 (one-liners like “You’re really weird!” and “Eeow!” lose their charm fairly quickly).
As for the children, the gum-chewing martial artist Violet Beauregarde (relative newcomer and Natalie Portman clone Annasophia Robb), complete with an unwavering superiority complex, never loses her luster and hilarity. Grandpa Joe (David Kelly, “Waking Ned Devine”), however, is portrayed as a bumbling fool, a miscalculated change from the original that had him as Charlie’s resilient mentor.
Dahl’s original was wacky and neurotic enough without Burton and Depp adding their respective flairs. After they do, we are left with a jumbled, oft-confusing mess in which it’s hard to figure out where everything’s going. Only Depp could make an eccentric like Wilder look tame — and after a career of pushing the boundaries, perhaps this time, tamer would have done Depp well.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars