Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): Tim Burton’s Fable, Starring Johnny Depp

Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is big in scope, size, and imagination, but not as charming as the original 1971 film, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Burton brings his vivid imagination and flamboyant touch to the Roald Dahl classic book, admired by both kids and adults. He fully realizes the book’s visual potential, doing it on a grand, occasionally spectacular scale. But Burton’s elaborate production compromises the heart and soul and the charming simplicity of the beloved morality tale.

Admittedly, Burton faced a major challenge in remaking a movie that has acquired mythic proportions. Burton takes a personal approach, turning the text into a typically flamboyant Burton picture. It remains to be seen how the hardcore fans of the book and the 1971 movie will react to his interpretation.

Not helping matters much is Johnny Depp’s bizarre turn. After a string of brilliant turns that have earned him two consecutive Oscar nominations (“The Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Finding Neverland”), Depp gives his first disappointing performance as Willy Wonka. As always, Depp is eccentric, yet everything about his work, from his Michael Jackson look-alike to the fake teeth and high-pitch voice, calls too much attention to the artificial ingredients of his performance. Depp is more weird than creepy, playing the chocolatier in effete, and even androgynous, manner.

That Depp plays a role that Gene Wilder embodied so enchantingly in the 1971 movie makes things worse. Wilder found the right balance between being scary and disarming, whereas Depp is just strange, and some of the aphorisms that he utters fall flat. “Obviously it was important to go nowhere near the other film,” Depp told the press. “The seeding of Gene Wilder rests on the bottom of your brain and can never get rid of it. But I figured if I started to go into that arena, I had to tell myself, ‘Stay away!'”

Published in 1964, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is still a beloved classic by children and adults. Over the past four decades, the book has sold over 13 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Its enduring popularity is a reflection of how well Dahl the author understood and communicated with children. Since Felicity Dahl, Ronald’s window and caretaker of his estate since his death in 1990, is credited as producer, it’s fair to assume that she has approved of Burton’s changes.

Freudian psychology seems to be back with vengeance in mainstream Hollywood movies. Following in the footsteps of “Batman Begins,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is yet another psychologistic tale about a turbulent and damaging father-son relationship. In “Charlie,” this takes the form of flashbacks that explain why Wonka has become the loner and eccentric chocolatier that he is. That the father is played by Christopher Lee brings another layer to the story, due to the actor’s screen image.

Burton and his adapter John August (who also scripted Burton’s last movie, “Big Fish”) have taken a number of liberties with the book either in concession to the current marketplace demands and/or in an effort to make the film more personal. Burton’s film steers clear of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s musical territory. There are other changes: “Charlie” explores Wonka’s troubled childhood, and features a fleet of tinier Oompa-Loompas than in the first film (all played by one actor, Deep Roy, due to digitized technology).

The story concerns an unlikely friendship between eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonks (Depp) and Charlie Bucket (Freddie Hughmore), a good-hearted boy from a poor family living in the shadows of Wonka’s factory. It’s the second collaboration of Depp and Hughmore, who played Peter in Marc Forster’s “Finding Neverland.” (As far as adapting fairy tales to the screen, Burton takes the opposite approach to his text than Forster’s tribute to the creation of “Peter Pan,” which was more emotional and paid greater attention to characterization).

Most nights in the Bucket home, dinner is a watered-down bowl of cabbage soup, which young Charlie shares with his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and father (Noah Taylor), and both pairs of grandparents. The sight of four grandparents, who spend most of their time in bed, living under the same roof, is something to behold.

Despite poverty, the tiny, tumbledown, drafty old house is filled with warmth and love. Every night, before going to bed, Charlie observes from his window Wonka’s great factory. He often drifts off to sleep, dreaming about what might be inside the factory. Strangely, for fifteen years, no one has seen a single worker going in or coming out of the place. Nor have they caught a glimpse of Wonka himself. Yet, mysteriously, great quantities of chocolate are still being made and shipped to shops all over the world.
(During the credits sequence, there’s a great montage of how chocolate bars are being made, packaged, and delivered).

The yarn kicks into high gear with Wonka’s momentous announcement, that he’ll open his factory and reveal “all of its secrets and magic” to five lucky children who find golden tickets hidden inside five randomly selected Wonka chocolate bars. Of course, nothing would make the Bucket family happier than to see Charlie win, but the odds are against him, since they can only afford to buy one bar a year, for Charlie’s birthday.

Indeed, one by one, news breaks around the world about the lucky children, which make Charlie’s hopes grow dimmer. First, there’s gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), who thinks of nothing but stuffing sweets into his mouth all day. Then, there’s the spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), who throws fits if her father (James Fox) doesn’t buy her everything she desires. Next comes Violet Beaurearde (AnnaSophia Robb), a champion gum chewer who cares only for the trophies in her display case. Finally, there is Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), who likes to show off how much smarter he is than everyone else.

However, a miracle happens, and Charlie finds some money on a snowy street. Heading to the nearest store for a Wonka Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, Charlie just thinks of how good it will taste. But lo and behold, he finds the last golden ticket under the wrapper; the other customers in the store try to manipulate Charlie and get the ticket from him.

Charlie and his family decide that Grandpa Joe would be the one to accompany him to the factory; the other kids bring one of their immediate parents. Grandpa Joe is so excited that he springs out of bed, suddenly feeling younger. He still fondly recalls happier times, when he used to work in the factory, before Willy closed its gates to the town.

Once inside, the kids–and the viewers–are dazzled by one sight after another. Wondrous gleaming contraptions of Wonka’s own invention churn, pop and whistle, producing new edible delights. Crews of merry Oompa-Loompas mine mountains of fudge beside a frothy chocolate waterfall, or ride a translucent spun-sugar, dragon-headed boat down a chocolate river past crops of twisted candy cane trees and edible mint-sugar grass. Marshmallow cherry creams grow on shrubs, ripe and sweet.

In one of the film’s most spectacular set pieces, a hundred trained squirrels sit on a hundred tiny stools, shelling nuts for chocolate bars faster than any machine. Children will particularly love the last reel, in which Wonka pilots a glass elevator that rockets through the vast factory up and down, sideways and slantwayspractically every which way one can think of.

Almost intriguing as the fanciful invention is Wonka himself, a gracious but most unconventional host. While entertaining the children, every once in a while, he gets frozen and sad, flashing back to his past, one too painful to talk about. The flashbacks are weak and they interrupt the flow of the magic in their effort to show who Wonka truly is, and why he has devoted his life to making sweets.

Except for Charlie, all the other kids prove to be rotten or greedy, so consumed with their immediate desires that they can scarcely appreciate the wonder of Wonka’s creations. One by one, their spoiled, mean-spirited, or know-it-all personalities lead them into all kinds of trouble that force them off the tour before it’s even finished.

When only Charlie is left, Wonka reveals the final secret, the grandest prize of all: The keys to the factory itself. Long isolated from his own family, Wonka feels it’s time to find an heir to his candy empire, someone he can trust to carry on with his life’s work. To that effect, he devises an elaborate context to select one special child. What Wonka never expects is that his act of generosity would bring him an even more valuable gift in return.

Burton, no doubt, has reimagined the classic in good faith, based on his extraordinary visual imagination and new psychological take on the story. But after watching his movie, some viewers may still miss the charm, modesty, and lovely songs of the 1971 movie, since the musical numbers in the new film are not particularly good.