The title of Tim Burton’s latest walk on the weird side of filmmaking, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” matches the great Roald Dahl novel in putting the focus on heroic, good-hearted child Charlie instead of candy maker Willie Wonka, who replaced Charlie in the title of the first movie version in 1971. But a better title would have been “Johnny Depp and the Chocolate Factory” because actor Depp and the marvels of the candy factory share the best moments on the screen.
For the third consecutive summer, Depp has taken a character and produced an Oscar-caliber performance perfect for children, delightful for parents and sure to spread smiles through the theater whenever he’s on the screen. His role as Wonka won’t win Depp the Academy Award he was nominated for as Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of the Black Pearl” or as playwright J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland,” but Depp has proved beyond any doubt that America has no finer actor today.
In Wonka, Depp gives us a man with more depth, more quirks and more tricks than Gene Wilder’s original version. With his bright-colored clothes, fondness for funky sunglasses and hats, awkward haircut, ghostly skin, and eternal childhood, this Wonka teeters on the edge of a freaky Michael Jackson homage, but Depp adds just enough silliness and self-mockery to make it all work.
It works best when Wonka is guiding five children and their chaperones through the world’s largest, most fantastic chocolate factory, a place where Oompa-Loompas roam and almost everything is edible, “including me,” Wonka says, “although that’s called cannibalism, and it’s frowned upon in most of the world.”
For those of you who were creeped out by the orange-skinned, green-haired Oompa-Loompas from the original film, this batch of Loompaland natives is less threatening. The Oompas are smaller but otherwise look like people with one twist: Everyone, male or female, has the same face. And they have a broad range of musical tastes, rather than the repetitive singsong of the first movie.
As you would expect from a Burton movie, the visuals are spectacular, whether he’s showing us the chocolate river and waterfall that prove Augustus Gloop’s downfall, the blueberry explosion of Violet Beauregarde, the bad-nut-sensing squirrels who do in Veruca Salt, the “2001: A Space Odyssey”-inspired TV broadcast that shrinks Mike Teavee or the Great Glass Elevator on its travels inside and outside the factory.
The biggest flaw in Burton’s confection is that he didn’t find ways to show us more of the fabulous factory. Instead, we feel rushed as Wonka moves from room to room that he knows will doom the wretched children in his group.
Given the title change, it’s ironic that the film is weakest when it focuses on Charlie and his ne’er-do-well family. Charlie is so painfully good and earnest that it’s a blessing he rarely has the screen to himself. Yes, the Buckets give the movie its heart and its moral, but, honestly, who goes to the movies for preaching? We get enough of that on Sunday mornings.
Still, a little lesson in the importance of family and love is a small price to pay to get to spend two more hours with Depp at the peak of his powers.
— Reviewed by C. Jacobs
(“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is playing at the Marketplace Cinema off Beckford Drive.)