Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Warner Brothers Pictures presents a film directed by Tim Burton. Written by John August, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG (for
quirky situations, action and mild language). Starring Freddie Highmore, Johnny Depp, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee, Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordon Fry, Philip Wiegratz.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mel Stuart's 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic novel, is largely an awful film. It's filled with horrid acting and embarrassingly maudlin musical numbers, and without Gene Wilder's bipolar tour de force as the titular chocolatier, there would be pretty much no reason to bother with it at all. Yet it has become a sort of modern children's classic. I'm not sure why.

And neither is Tim Burton, who, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has set out to make a more faithful adaptation of the novel (note the correct title). Burton, film's poet laureate of the bizarre, would seem to be an ideal choice; and indeed, it turns out, he is. Several moments in Stuart's film match the book's undercurrent of darkness - most notably Wilder's performance and that terrifying acid-trip boat ride (which, come to think of it, is mostly scary for Wilder's vocal inflections) - but it is, on the whole, pretty dull. Wonka's factory is a fantastical place, a whole different world unto itself; of the two films, only Burton's is able to capture the correct sense of wonder.

From the opening moments of the film, it is clear that we are not in the "real world" in any practical sense. Burton's London is a cold, mechanical place; all the buildings are chrome, shaped the same and alligned in rows. That is, all the buildings except for Charlie Bucket's house, a slanted, run-down shanty whose design seems to defy all laws of architecture. It's an incredible image, and it serves to effectively establish its residents as hopelessly poor.

Charlie, played here by Finding Neverland's Freddie Highmore, really seems to be a starving, impoverished child. Unlike the earlier film's shiny, golden-haired cherub, this Charlie is gaunt, ashen and frail. He loves Willy Wonka's Chocolate, but his family can only afford to get him one every year. From here, we all know how the story plays out; the reclusive Wonka (Johnny Depp) announces contest to allow five children into his factory. Eventually, Charlie finds one and goes with his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly). During the tour, the other, terrible children fall victim to various pitfalls, leaving Charlie as the only remaining child, at which point he recieves a special prize.

Burton is not particularly interested in narrative cohesion - it's a pretty thin plot to begin with, anyway. Instead, he intricately crafts the interior of the factory, room by room and set-piece by set-piece. His bizarre visual creations are among the most original images to hit theaters this year; the ill-fated children look creepily inhuman, with shallow eyes and plastic skin; the Oompa-Loompas, all played by one actor (Deep Roy) shrunk and copied with computer effects, perform ornate musical numbers that range in style from Beatle-esque rock balladry to Bollywood musical.

It would be hard to live up to the original interpretation of Wonka, so Depp doesn't even bother. Rather than trying to fill Wilder's sizable shoes, he lights the damn shoes on fire and just goes nuts. His is a Wonka more scared of children than they are of him, one prone to absurd non-sequiturs ("Everything in this room is edible - even me, although that is called cannibalism and is looked down upon in some societies") and creepy giggles. People have tried to compare Depp's performance to Wilder's, but that's a meaningless exercise; they are so different as to almost be different characters.

But hidden behind is false smile and squeaky voice, Depp manages to invest the character with some actual depth. Through a subplot new to the story, Burton and screenwriter John August attempt to explain Wonka's eccentric behavior; and although the flashbacks only occasionally work, Depp's passive-aggressiveness and his inability to even say the word "parents" grounds the character in some sort of emotional reality.

Once Charlie leaves the factory, following an exhilarating sequence with Wonka's glass elevator, the film starts to lose steam; the other children are shown leaving the factory, eliminating the possibility - left open by both the book and previous film - that their mishaps proved fatal, thereby draining the film of some of its darkness. Even worse, we get what amounts to a sermon on the importance of family, an unfortunate - and uncharacteristic - detour into the maudlin.

If these missteps seem more damning than they perhaps are, it's only because the rest of the film avoids them so deftly. When Charlie and the Chocolate Factory works, it's a magical, slyly subversive family entertainment; when it doesn't... well, at least it's still better than the other one.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this