If this were the first cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," it would likely be hailed a masterpiece. By capturing the dark menace and fairy tale wonder of Dahl's work, the picture is a visionary imagining of a nearly unfilmable children's book.
Only it's NOT the first version.
It's a remake based on a movie that has been seen again and again by generations of people.
The 1971 Gene Wilder musical long ago eclipsed the fame of the book. It's the version that has been burned into the public consciousness - after all, people inevitably refer to the story as "Willy Wonka," despite the source material's actual name being "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
So watching Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's update becomes about making comparisons. Some stuff is better (the casting), some worse (the songs). Mostly, it's just different (the ending). But the viewer inevitably keeps a running score of "Charlie" versus "Willy."
Is that a fair standard when critiquing the movie?
That's the price filmmaker Burton pays for trying to concoct his own recipe out of a delicious piece of pop culture.
The film gains points immediately by placing "Finding Neverland" star Freddie Highmore in the role of Charlie Bucket. The "ordinary boy" and his impoverished extended family live in a shack underneath the shadow of Willy Wonka's headquarters - a sprawling place "50 times bigger than any other chocolate factory."
When the reclusive Wonka (Depp) offers to open his doors to contest winners for the first time in decades, an international search begins for five golden tickets that are hidden in chocolate bars. As fate would have it, Charlie earns his spot along with the spoiled Veruca (Julia Winter), ultracompetitive Violet (Annasophia Robb), gluttonous Augustus (Philip Wiegratz), reckless Mike (Jordon Fry) and their equally irritating parents.
As the enigmatic chocolatier introduces the group to one marvel after another, he also reveals more about himself and his motivations for reaching out to the public.
Years ago the idea of remaking "Willy Wonka" was getting kicked around the industry. One report had director Joel Schumacher ("Batman & Robin") and actor John Travolta attached to the project. Given that alternative, it's possible to envision all kinds of ways this film might have been a monumental disaster.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ***
Watching director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp's update of the 1971 Gene Wilder musical becomes about making comparisons. Some stuff is better (the casting), some worse (the songs). Mostly, it's just different (the ending). Either way, the film does capture the dark menace and fairy tale wonder of Roald Dahl's story.
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Instead, director Tim Burton - himself a master of slightly creepy, otherworldly whimsy a la "Big Fish" and "Sleepy Hollow" - manages to improve on the first picture in several ways. First, he crafts an even weirder film. Second, whereas the rotten kids were one-dimensionally awful in Wilder's version, in Burton's they are fully rounded cretins.
There is little reason to revise the bratty Veruca, whose impatience at having to wait an extra minute compels her to demand her doting father to "Make time go faster!" But the gum-chewing Violet (looking like a young Tatum O'Neal) is a more 00s over-overachiever than her '70s counterpart. Similarly, Mike has been turned from a TV addict into the type of enfant terrible raised by violent video games and Mountain Dew commercials.
"Charlie" is bolstered by a great first act that establishes all these characters as well as the empathetic home life of the working-class Buckets, including beloved Grandpa Joe (David Kelly). However, the film actually loses a bit of its whimsy once the kids enter the factory. The scene where they explore the room made of candy where the chocolate river flows just doesn't conjure much magic, mainly because Wonka implies things are progressing due to predetermined fate. The kids even comment about how the whole thing seems like a setup, complete with ready-made song lyrics about each event.
It's too bad this song element isn't abandoned altogether by Burton and screenwriter John August ("Charlie's Angels"). Unlike the hummable tunes spread throughout the original, the movie grinds to a halt whenever a child gets his comeuppance so that the Oompa-Loompas can sing about it.
This is the 11th time Burton and composer Danny Elfman have collaborated, and the pairing is unpleasant. Elfman's lyrics are rarely intelligible, and at best his numbers sound like Ricky Martin outtakes.
"Pure Imagination" they ain't.
The film adds a backstory to how the Oompa-Loompas (all played by Deep Roy) came into Wonka's employ. It also includes a series of flashbacks that help explain why Wonka became so enamored with sweets, introducing the character's tyrannical father (Christopher Lee) into the mix.
Touches like these, which aren't in the previous movie or the book, add depth to Burton's rendering.
And they're desperately needed for a story that is so intrinsically familiar. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is strongest - as during a nutty set piece involving a sorting room staffed by squirrels - when it veers off on its own tangent.
As Wonka confirms, "The best kind of prize is a surprise."