by Jeff Meyers
Its debatable whether the world really needed another film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Tim Burton seems the obvious choice for adapting Roald Dahls childrens book.
Wickedly clever, Dahls mischievous morality tale follows Charlie Buckett, a saintly but poor lad who, along with four horrible brats, wins a one-day visit to Willy Wonkas magnificent chocolate factory. The contest is Wonkas attempt to find a worthy successor. Providing the grist for the authors misanthropic mill, the other children represent four of the seven deadly sins: obese Augustus Gloop (gluttony), spoiled Veruca Salt (greed), competitive Violet Beauregarde (pride) and violent Mike Teaveee (anger) all fall prey to their own selfish appetites and get their sadistic comeuppance.
Much has been made of how this version is more faithful to the authors original vision (Dahl said he disliked the 1971 film), but aside from superfluous flashbacks of Wonkas troubled childhood and Burtons unique visual style, its hard to see the difference.
Along with screenwriter John August (who also scripted Burtons last film, Big Fish), the director revisits his favorite theme: the dysfunctions of father-son relationships. Shifting the storys emotional framework away from Charlie, Burton focuses on Wonkas relationship with his tyrannical dentist father. Its an ironic twist, given the 1971 version was retitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (for product marketing reasons) but focused mostly on young Charlies dreams of a better life.
The true challenge in remaking Dahls classic story, however, is dispelling Gene Wilders deceptively sinister portrayal of Willy Wonka. Casting Johnny Depp as the eccentric chocolatier would, at first glance, seem like an inspired choice. But while Wilder gave his character an undeniable sense of menace and mystery he seemed not so much to be testing the children as punishing them Depp plays him as emotionally detached and socially uncomfortable. A bizarre amalgam of Michael Jackson and John Waters, Wonka comes off as an effete man-child. Its a creepy, highly mannered performance that, unfortunately, falls flat.
Visually, Burton delivers in his typically twisted and flamboyant style. He directs with a light touch, never overplaying the humor, and imbues the film with a goofier spirit than its predecessor. Though the chocolate factory lacks the furious imagination of his earlier films, it does boast one particularly spectacular set piece: a room full of trained squirrels, sitting on tiny stools, shelling nuts for Wonka Bars.
Finding Neverlands Freddie Highmore is convincing as Charlie, and Deep Roy, who plays every one of the Oompa Loompas, gives a hilarious deadpan performance. The song and dance numbers that follow each rotten childs demise have a wonderfully loopy energy thanks to composer Danny Elfman channeling everything from Fleetwood Macs Tusk to George Clintons 70s funk.
Though always entertaining and at times quite sweet, Burtons direction feels distant and aloof, lacking the giddy childlike passion the story calls for. As a result the film captures few of the charms of the original. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a tasty confection that delights while it lasts but ultimately just leaves you hungry for more.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.