Sorry Charlie

`Chocolate Factory' begins deliciously but, thanks to psychobabble and an oddball Depp, it's nuts at the center


July 15, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Roald Dahl's great 1964 kids' book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory recognizes the cracked sanctity of candy-making. Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), the world's greatest chocolatier, makes candy for candy's sake as Matisse made art for art's sake. He demands that it tastes delicious in new and stimulating ways.

What's equally wonderful and hilarious about the story is that Wonka's juvenile soul mate isn't a connoisseur or a collector. He's just a poor boy named Charlie (Freddie Highmore), who has a good heart, a sensible head and (it turns out) an appetite for improvisation.

In Tim Burton's film version, Wonka's factory reaches its peak of allure in an impressionistic opening sequence. Spidery mechanical limbs roll and shape the chocolate into rectangles that float on precision parachutes to purple-gloved hands that wrap them into bars. It's like a combination of Rube Goldberg and Busby Berkeley - with the feathery touch of Burton at his best.

When Burton's movie is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is horrid.

Its glaring flaw is that Burton and his screenwriter, John August, undercut Wonka's magic as a gleeful master craftsman and muse of childlike high jinks. They turn him into an emotionally wounded genius: the victim of a cold dentist father (Christopher Lee) who encased him in a Frankenstein's-monster set of braces and forbade him to eat candy even on Halloween. They dilute their wild aesthetic wonders with a climactic flood of sentimentality.

In a disastrous miscalculation, Depp bases his performance on the moviemakers' trumped-up "back story" rather than the giddy wizard of Dahl's novel. He sports a Prince Valiant bob and dresses in Edwardian finery; he looks as if he hasn't seen daylight since puberty. He speaks in a voice as light and pale as his skin, in argot that dates back to '50s jive and '60s pop. ("Good morning, Starshine," he croons, quoting Hair.)

Depp has demonstrated his versatility and brilliance in movies as different as Donnie Brasco and Pirates of the Caribbean. But here he portrays Wonka as a charmless weirdo. Depp delivers many of his lines as mumbling, snide asides - in-jokes directed toward Wonka's legion of Oompa-Loompas, the imported, sub-pygmy-sized workers who occupy and operate his factory. (Thanks to cinematic prestidigitation, the same wry actor, Deep Roy, plays each of them). Depp's Wonka is an insufficient anchor for the Queen Mary of camp spectacle that Burton struggles to berth on the big screen.

Burton once tried to interest a screenwriter friend in rewriting House of Wax as a vehicle for Michael Jackson. Depp's Wonka acts like a cross between Jackson and Vincent Price - he summons kids and then recoils from them. You can almost imagine him saying, in Jackson's creepy sibilance, "there's nothing sexual about it." But the way Depp plays Wonka, there's something obviously sick about what happens when five kids (including Charlie) win a chance to tour Wonka's factory and he ends up drubbing four of them without mercy.

Depp's Wonka proves to be a cross between a will-o'-the-wisp and a mushroom cloud. He punishes each child (except Charlie) for his or her sins: rotund Augustus Gloop for his gluttony, adrenaline-addicted Mike Teavee for his violent video addiction (here updated to violent video-game addiction), Veruca Salt for her cold-eyed greed, and Violet Beauregarde for her unrelenting competitiveness. (Parents share the psychic torment and in one case the harsh sentencing.) Eruptive high points of the book, these slapstick penalties form big stumbling blocks in the movie. Oompa-Loompas sing out their decrees in musical numbers that set Dahl's original lyrics to riffs from Broadway and Hollywood, and psychedelic rock, heavy metal, even Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra as heard in 2001.

Add in visual references to Esther Williams' water musicals and the June Taylor dancers from the old Jackie Gleason TV variety show, as well as, yes, the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001 - all staged on giant phantasmagoric sets - and you've got a rancid popcorn cornucopia. Burton brings off his usual plethora of bizarre touches, including a riotous scene of squirrels laboring at an enormous circular table, cracking walnuts. But the weight of all this camp sabotages the vibrant, funky storytelling of the film's first 30 minutes.

Dahl purists accustomed to the spare, frisky lines of Quentin Blake's illustrations may compare this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the unspeakably garish movies of Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Actually, Burton's movie is more like Chris Columbus' first Harry Potter movie. Nearly everything that's supposed to be magical falls flat; nearly everything that's supposed to be mundane is magical. And that's partly a tribute to Highmore. Like adult Golden Age stars Jimmy Stewart or Joel McCrea, he embodies heroic decency without inflation, with a smile that lights up the farthest corner of the screen.

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