Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: Sometimes you feel like a nut

Florida Times-UnionNot that there was ever much doubt, but Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s take on the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is completely nuts.

It’s too nuts sometimes, and not quite nuts enough in others. But fans looking for Burton’s new-era-Seuss madness and Depp’s nuttiness will go home quite happy, their eyes taffy-pulled as much as Mike Teavee’s body.

Charlie — not a remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 Gene Wilder classic, Depp has stressed, but a more faithful take on the Roald Dahl book — still stands as one of children’s literature’s weirdest brain-scrambles. With its demented protagonist, roster of unpleasant kids and rather detached take on child welfare, it’s sort of a version of Seven with way, way more marshmallows.

But it’s exactly that monstrous dark side that makes it the perfect playground for Burton, who rises and sleeps with this sort of glistening madness, and Depp, who, since his pitch-perfect, Oscar-nominated turn in Pirates of the Caribbean, knows he can make big studios pay for as much bizarro behavior as he wants.

What he gets away with is an uneven but pathologically watchable man-child who ends up proving more psychologically bruised than the wild-eyed nutcase dialed up by Wilder (and often not far from Depp and Burton’s tremblingly innocent Edward Scissorhands).

The Michael Jackson parallels pretty much jump off the screen: Depp’s Wonka lives in his own sealed universe, talks like a 14-year-old, has Mary Tyler Moore’s hair, wears Victorian clothing, gives in to fits of inappropriate giggles and is seemingly completely unprepared for life with other humans. Part of Wonka’s twisted outlook is explained in flashbacks involving Wonka’s father, played by horror vet Christopher Lee, and though I’m not the movie expert here, I can definitively say that Lee has come up with American cinema’s best-ever pronunciation of the word “caramels.”

Depp’s a hoot to watch, even if something about his mood swings — sometimes mysteriously dark, sometimes garishly innocent — never quite gels.

At least until a ragged new ending, the story remains the same: Penniless Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, Depp’s sad-eyed co-star in Finding Neverland) scores one of the prized Golden Tickets that grants him and his kindly grandfather (David Kelly) a one-day tour of the candy recluse’s castle (“Everything in here is eat-able!” cries Depp. “I’m even eat-able!”).

The other winners are the unforgivably gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz, who does not appear without chocolate on his mug), bratty Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), ultra-competitive Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb) and Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry), who’s been upgraded from a couch potato to a connoisseur of violent video games. As the tour goes on, each repugnant little mutt ends up suffering a comically gruesome fate, which is followed, without fail, by a dance number.

Needless to say, the film doesn’t really rev up until the gang gets to Wonka’s factory. And if the ’71 film had a dark undercurrent, this one parades its weirdness, and it becomes a careening boat-ride of fantastical contraptions, bizarre back rooms and production numbers by the Oompa Loompas, who have been shrunk to 2 feet tall, are all played by actor Deep Roy and walk off with every scene and dance number they’re in (especially the funk one).

Still, for all their arty giddiness, the scenes in the factory, and the final act, struggle to find their mood, and Burton, as he does, hints at more darkness than he ends up being comfortable providing. Where Wilder had a terminal glint of mischief in his eye, Burton lets Depp hint at nefarious, possibly pre-conceived intentions that are never quite explained. (Burton pulls his punches, too — in the Oompa Loompas’ first production number, they assure the gaping throng that “Augustus Gloop will not be harmed”). And there’s the matter of the show-closing semi-sweet Lesson, which is as clamped on as Lessons get.

But, like Charlie Bucket says, candy isn’t supposed to have a point, and this movie isn’t either. And when Burton and Depp are left to frolic in their own gooey playground, they serve up a nutty, creamy, fizzy factory that’s too weird to have possibly come from anyone else.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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