Willy Wonka's (Johnny Depp) plan to spruce up his chocolate business is to plant five golden tickets randomly in his Wonka bars inviting the holders to a tour of his factory. For poor Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, "Finding Neverland"), chances for a ticket are slim, but luck is on his side. Joining spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), competitive Violent Beauregard (Annasophia Robb), perpetually consuming Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), and violent Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry), Charlie meets Wonka, the reclusive, eccentric fellow behind the delights of his factory. As the tour commences, weird things start happening to the selfish, misbehaving children, leaving Charlie alone to deal with Wonka's bizarre behavior.
If not exactly a classic film, Mel Stuart's 1971 fantasy creation "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" has stood the test of time with its tender realization of childhood sugar fantasies and morbid, goofball humor. With Gene Wilder at the helm of the considerable steerage of oddities, this loose Roald Dahl adaptation has aged as a major 1970s peculiarity, yet, at the same time, remained wonderful. More than 30 years later, noted quirkmeister Tim Burton has taken up the challenge to bring the book (with the true "Charlie" title) to the screen again, and he's out to reclaim the cinema version for himself.
Immediately, comparing the two productions becomes a fruitless quest. The Stuart film was made in an era of musicals, practical effects, and gee-whiz kid acting. Burton's film exists in a more cynical time, with a more sarcastic filmmaker. Opening with Danny Elfman's familiar scoring set against scenes of cold steel machines cranking out Wonka bars, the tone is clearly laid out: this is no candy shop, and the candy man can't. Burton has more in store for his audience than simple sweets and soft-shoe.
With a rapturous and meticulous production design, a tongue firmly placed in cheek, and the appearance of Christopher Lee as Willy's dentist dad, this is a Burton film through and through. That being established, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (IMDb listing) is a chilly affair, more concerned with technical prowess than heart or plot. For the most part, this change in focus is fine, for Burton's take on Willy's chocolate factory is a marvel, packed with infinite candy rooms, singing, dancing, cocoa-bean worshiping Oompa Loompas (all played by movie MVP, Deep Roy, "The Neverending Story"), and legitimate danger. While a lot of the film is sweetened with CGI, Burton still palms the primal magic of Wonka's wonderland with his extensive visuals, and the depth and life he gives the factory is almost perfect.
Almost perfect can also be said of Johnny Depp, who steps out of the mile-long shadow of Gene Wilder to fashion his own twisted take on Willy. Since the aim for "Charlie" isn't pointed at the heart, Depp's Wonka is a strange fellow who hates parents, is easily annoyed by children, and appears to be a germaphobe. Not exactly the winking teddy bear Wilder went after in his legendary performance, but Depp's oddball acting fits heavenly with Burton's vision, and the two team up yet again for another rousing, wildly original collaboration.
However, with Depp and the computer effects taking the lead, poor little Charlie isn't left with much to do. Freddie Highmore is an inspired choice for the unlikely Golden Ticket winner, and his English puppy dog demeanor does the film a world of good in the emotion department. But Burton keeps Charlie at arm's length for the entire film, along with the other kid actors (who aren't nearly as interesting or natural as Highmore), leaving unfair comparisons to the stellar child acting work in the original incarnation to dance through the head.
Tim Burton's "Charlie" corrects many mistakes from the Stuart film (the Oompas aren't creepily orange and green anymore, and Burton has mercifully done away with the infamously bizarre, psychedelic boat trip sequence), along with raising the epic visual stakes for the more visionary angles of the story. Burton has created a genuinely fun movie for the family, blessed with a zippy running time, and those tired of the Wilder warmth for this often ominous tale will rejoice over this new icy stab at detailing Wonka's outrageous tour.
Filmfodder Grade: B+