Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Missi Pyle, Deep Roy, Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz
Rated: PG for quirky situations, action and mild language.
Parental Notes: Although some of the events may unsettle very young children, this is overall a great kids’ movie. It’s a morality tale, where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, and it’s quirky enough to keep that predictability from making it dull. Even better, there’s plenty here to make it worth seeing for parents too.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is based on a wildly popular book which has already been the subject of a wildly popular film. This new version skips past the twinkly Gene Wilder film straight back to the darkly entertaining book (the screenwriter had never seen Wilder’s film) and has the filmmaking team of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp behind it. You can imagine, then, what a peculiar film it is. The Wilder version was odd, sure, but in the way that a marshmallow Peep is sweet: it was fluffy and light and covered in that brightly-colored twinkly sugar dust. Burton’s vision is odd in the way that Nerds candy is sweet: there’s plenty of tang in there with the sweet flavor, and a bit of pop to boot.
Mysterious and reclusive candymaker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) hides five golden tickets in his world-famous candy bars. The lucky folks who find the tickets will be granted a massive supply of chocolate and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to tour the Wonka factory and possibly win a secret, one-of-a-kind prize at the end. The film’s hero, young Charlie (Freddie Highmore), is the only child of a monstrously poor family, and obsessed with Wonka’s factory. He finds a ticket, of course, but the other four tickets are found by horrifically awful children: spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), overly competitive Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), and brutish Mike Teevee (Jordan Fry).
The film follows the children and their attendant parents (or, in Charlie’s case, grandparent; his Grandpa Joe used to work for Wonka before he fired all his workers, sick of spies hiding in the workforce) through the tour of Wonka’s utterly bizarre factory. One by one, the selfish, badly-behaved children fall prey to their weaknesses and are eliminated, usually with accompaniment from the miniature, identical Oompa Loompas (Deep Roy) who man the factory. Anybody who has ever read a children’s book ever will know that Charlie, who is so good he is practically a saint, will be the ultimate winner.
What sets “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” above most kids’ films is that it appeals to adults as well as children. While the youngsters in the audience are enthralled by the wonders inside the factory and delighted by the terrible fates of the nasty children in the film, adults can enjoy Burton’s brilliant madness and the hysterical references to everything from Busby Berkeley showpieces to KISS concerts. What may throw some potential filmgoers off is that this is a very Burton film: it’s weird, the humor is rather dark at times, and although it has a sweet center, it’s frequently more than a little nutty. Also disconcerting is the frequent use of CGI — while it works for duplicating the Oompa Loompas, it’s overused in smooth out the pores and facial irregularities of Depp and some of the other actors.
Johnny Depp is a frequent Burton collaborator and he has created one of his strangest characters to date in Willy Wonka. Wonka is easily distressed, clearly unused to being around other people, and moreover actively dislikes children and the entire idea of family. The latter is explained with flashbacks to his troubled relationship with his father, a dentist (the marvelous Christopher Lee) while the former provides an explanation for why he does so little to prevent his young guests from getting themselves into trouble. He warns them, to be sure, but when they choose to ignore his warnings he lets them suffer the consequences and enjoys the songs the Oompa Loompas make up to mock the brats. Depp has rolled a lot of strange mannerisms into his performance, and while it’s easy to see why folks are comparing Depp’s Wonka to Michael Jackson, that is likely a product of pop star’s over-exposure during his trial. Depp’s performance here is hard to pin down: it’s creepy and slippery, and keeps you off guard enough that the surrealistic nature of the rest of the film can slide right past you.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a film to delight both children and adults; the plot may be a bit predictable but the events of the film are not. The oddities and danger beneath the magic keep this from being just another kiddie flick, and that is definitely its strength.