Sorry, Charlie: Johnny Depp's Not Much of a Treat In Tim Burton's 'Chocolate Factory'

Washington Post

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.