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Published: Friday, 7/15/2005

Movie review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Johnny Depp plays the eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka in his factory wearing a top hat, velvet coat, and a large smile.
Johnny Depp plays the eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka in his factory wearing a top hat, velvet coat, and a large smile.
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At last, Johnny Depp is ...

Michael Jackson.

Or Fred Rogers. Hard to tell.

But compared with Depp's Willy Wonka in the new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder's candy magnate in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) might have been a slightly eccentric director of human resources for the Hershey Co.

Wilder had that frizzled afro thingee and the distracted, far-off gaze of a man trying to carry on a conversation while trying to remember where he left his keys. He was part carnival barker, part schoolmarm, a smidgen of hippie, but primarily he was eaten alive by the production design.

As Wonka, Wilder found children unpleasant but tolerable, provided you could find the right Charlie. Depp has the squeamish look of a germaphobe forever being seated next to drunks and infants on 12-hour flights. When one Veruca Salt (an excellent Julia Winter, with the widest, sharkiest smile imaginable) hugs his leg, he seizes up.

That's the paradox for those who will read Depp's reclusive Wonka as comment on another hermit celebrity recently acquitted of molestation charges: One likes children to the point of creepiness, the other is creepy, spends his days inventing delights for children, but hates them.

It's a deranged performance.

He seems to be embalmed.

With, oh ... gosh ... Gouda?

Depp knows better than to let a goofy, overdone popcorn picture devour him; after all, he singlehandedly elevated Pirates of the Caribbean into an Oscar contender. Tim Burton, the director, also knows better than to waste Depp, and he comes alive here in a humane, inventive way he hasn't since Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, both of which he made with Depp. Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a more faithful adaptation of the 1964 Roald Dahl classic, not as psychedelic or sweetly chintzy as the original beloved children's picture, but it goes further and is sincerely nutty, nougaty, dark, tasty - its impact is as carefully calibrated as any assembly-line confection.

Which is to say, short-lived.

Parents, miniature fans of the original, refugees from the 1970s - you are wise to be suspicious.

I realize what a drag this is. I, too, wish Hollywood would wake up and smell the original screenplays. And I realize I'm in the minority on this, but the idea of matching contemporary filmmakers with stories they might have told in another life may be a parlor game, but it's an intriguing one when the match is inspired.

The original Willy was never the warmest family film to begin with, and Burton has never been the warmest director; for that matter, Dahl's nihilistic wit (he also wrote James and the Giant Peach and Matilda, among 40 years of others) is honed, mean, barbed, and completely sides with children, which is why Dahl is so beloved.

Burton has swung awkwardly into the mainstream ever since Batman; with films like Big Fish and Planet of the Apes, he's had a tough time straining to show sentiment and accessibility the way less imaginative filmmakers do effortlessly. Charlie is an admission: He makes bitter, sadistic films that look like cookies and ice cream.

Where then does the warmth come from? Not Depp, but Charlie, played by Freddie Highmore, the exquisite urchin who co-starred with Depp in Finding Neverland. Charlie is gracious and poor, and when he lands the fifth Golden Ticket to an exclusive tour of Willy Wonka's mysterious gray wonderland, his first thought is that he can sell it: food on his family's table, and money in the pocket is more important, after all, than a backstage peek at the production of Everlasting Gobstoppers and nougat bars.

Nonsense, his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) says. They're going - to the joy of Charlie's parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor); they live (with all four grandparents, who sleep in bed and eat cabbage all day) in a German expressionist shack that leans like the last book on an empty shelf. A lovely, subtle touch in a film of loud, riotous ones. When night falls on the town, the auburn glow of the lanterns in Charlie's home remains the only fire left burning.

Anyway, the kid is a saint, and ever the caricaturist, Burton (as Dahl instructed, of course) pits Charlie's incorruptible goodness against four of his fellow Golden Ticket holders: odious, repulsive monsters, examples of not only the worst habits of childhood but (and Burton makes clear) the natural result of entitlement and overindulgence. As in the 1971 version, these little cows steal every scene they're in, and Burton is wise to let them chomp away: They're what a lot of us remember the most fondly, our miniature Mr. Hydes unleashed.

They're also far more relevant today than they were in the '70s. Kids like the German slob Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) and the sociopathic Violet Beauregarde (AnnaSophia Robb) truly do seem to be more common at a time when a kid with an iPod, a cell phone, an Xbox, and a car is not spoiled but "overextended."

Back to Depp, because your eyes rarely leave him - and that is a feat when a man surrounded by chocolate waterfalls and Teamster squirrels (who shell nuts for the candy bars, of course) is wearing white portholes for eyeglass frames, plus a severe bob for a haircut and a top hat and a red velvet coat with tails. And his skin is pasty and his smile is large and threatening.

His character in Sleepy Hollow, he says, stole liberally from Angela Lansbury; his pirate in Caribbean was one part Keith Richards and two parts Pepe Le Pew. He has said his Wonka is a descendent of Carol Channing.

The high voice, perhaps.

The rest, no doubt, is Michael Jackson on a good day, although even that is to downplay the originality and ingenuity of the performance. Depp never winks, never suggests the man behind the role - as, say, Robin Williams might. What he and Burton add to the old picture is a fussiness and artfulness. And to Dahl's story, they bring a clever (and thankfully breezy) bit of backstory: Charlie was raised by a candy-hating dentist (Christopher Lee), who fit him with a large metal bear trap of braces.

I should mention the songs.

As in the original, of course, as the factory tour grinds on the demise of each nasty child is met with a round of numbers performed by miniature factory workers, Oompa Loompas. They are all played here by dour-faced actor Deep Roy, digitally multiplied, who (with music written by Danny Elfman) performs each song in a different style: Ethel Merman, Iron Maiden, the Beatles, and the Backstreet Boys.

Will Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory be loved in 30 years? It should be. It's so silly, fleetingly delicious, unnerving, and cheerfully undernourishing, the biggest objection you're likely to have will be moral: Now that you've seen the big chocolate factory, how can Wilder keep you down on the farm? Or as Depp's Oompa Loopma shrink might ask: How do you feel about renouncing childhood memories?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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