By Ann Hornaday
What will Johnny do?
That has been the question on filmgoers' minds since it was announced, just
after Johnny Depp's triumphant channeling of Keith Richards in "Pirates of
the Caribbean," that he would next play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's "Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory." Would Depp channel Michael Jackson this time? Or
the role's 1971 originator, Gene Wilder? Or would he surprise the oddsmakers
with something completely, characteristically out there?
Johnny Depp has chosen some odd spirits to aid him in his journey to find
his inner Willy Wonka. (By Peter Mountain -- Warner Bros.)
Depp's Wonka is certainly out there but -- perhaps because of all the
speculative hype, perhaps because remake fatigue is setting in -- it's a
major comedown. Sashaying through a performance that seems to be more about
his teeth than anything else, Depp has chosen some odd spirits to aid him in
his journey to find his inner Willy. There's a smidgen of Mr. Rogers here, a
bit of Dana Carvey's Church Lady there; the exaggerated top hat, foppish
coat and waxy green pallor suggest a creature worthy of Dr. Seuss, and those
prosthetic choppers can't help but recall Depp's own performance as the
title character in Burton's 1994 movie "Ed Wood." And that hair--a lacquered
pageboy with wisps of Mamie Eisenhower bangs -- that hair can bring to mind
only one person these days, and that's the currently incarcerated New York
Times reporter Judith Miller.
The cumulative effect isn't pretty. Nor is it kooky, funny, eccentric or
even mildly interesting. Indeed, throughout his fey, simpering performance,
Depp seems to be straining so hard for weirdness that the entire enterprise
begins to feel like those excruciating occasions when your parents tried to
be hip. If you have to try that hard, you just aren't. Similarly, Burton,
whose keen imagination has come up with an eye-popping palette and
occasionally brilliant production design, has labored so hard to make Wonka
his own -- giving him a tedious back story, replete with daddy issues --
that he's lost all the subtle humor and understatement that made Roald
Dahl's original story, and Mel Stuart's 1971 adaptation, "Willy Wonka & the
Chocolate Factory," so charming in the first place.
You know you're in Burton's world from the movie's lovely opening sequences,
which unfold in a snowy modern-day city that could pass for Victorian
London. The place is dominated by a chocolate factory that seems plucked
fresh from a Pink Floyd album cover. The look is vintage Burton, from its
bold, austere aesthetic to its pristine attention to detail; whether it's
the retro-looking Wonka delivery bikes or the catawampus shack where Charlie
Bucket and his family live, Burton has created a universe full of vibrant
color, imagination and warmth.
Then the faces start to melt off the singing puppets, and you remember that
Burton's world can be a very dark place indeed. Those puppets appear half an
hour into "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," serving as mechanized
greeters at Willy Wonka's mysterious candy business, which Charlie (Freddie
Highmore) and four other young winners of Golden Tickets are about to tour.
Fans of the original "Willy Wonka" are familiar with Charlie's cohorts:
there's the bratty Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), the competitive Violet
Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), the candy-guzzling Augustus Gloop (Philip
Wiegratz) and the television-addicted Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). Shortly
after the puppets short-circuit and are promptly engulfed in flames, Wonka
himself appears, whispering "Good morning, Starshine" in a creepy, breathy
The ensuing downward spiral serves only to remind audiences why the original
"Willy Wonka" has been an enduring family hit: It's because Stuart
understood that Dahl's story wasn't just a fanciful tour through kids'
imaginations but a devastating social satire. Most of the movie's action
centered on the media frenzy, bare-knuckled greed and warped ambition that
erupted over the Golden Tickets; Wonka's factory tour was a sly commentary
-- delivered by Wilder with characteristically mordant understatement -- not
just on the gluttony, selfishness, snootiness and laziness the characters
embodied but also on the odiousness of kids, and overweening parents, in
Despite its title, the kids in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" have been
all but lost. They still receive their individual comeuppances --
accompanied by MTV-era song-and-dance numbers by the Oompa Loompas -- but
the satirical edge has been dulled in a film that is dominated, and
ultimately swamped, by its star's mannered, pixilated performance.
And so many flashbacks there are, from old Dr. Wonka burning young Willy's
Halloween candy to Willy's later trip to Oompa Loompa Land, where he
discovered the tribe of tiny brown men he would bring back to enslave --
sorry, employ -- as laborers in his candy empire. Reportedly, political
activists plan to hand out information at theaters playing "Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory" informing viewers of the real-life chocolate industry's
exploitative labor practices. Considering Willy's paternalistic,
post-colonial relationship with his "beloved Oompa Loompas" -- here
portrayed as digitized copies of the Indian actor Deep Roy -- they seem
pretty ripe for organizing themselves.
But such subtext is much less important to Burton than style, which "Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory" admittedly has in abundance, from its gorgeous
set design (the factory's nut-cracking room is particularly groovy) to
Willy's ever-changing wardrobe of Jackie O. sunglasses. Still, the film's
strenuous efforts at becoming a camp classic eventually begin to wear thin.
"Why is everything here so utterly pointless?" a character wails at one
point. As Burton shoves "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" down yet one
more digressive, if fantastic-looking, path, viewers may well find
themselves asking that very question.