Opinions vary about 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the first film version of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Some find it creaky, others claim it’s just charmingly old-fashioned, others are put off by the forgettable songs. But both fans and critics usually agree that casting Gene Wilder in the central role was a master stroke.
Wilder’s indulgent chocolatier, Willy Wonka, was sneaky, wise, funny and just a bit demented, and his plan for exposing spoiled-rotten children was deeply satisfying. In Tim Burton’s lavish and stylish remake (which returns to the title of Dahl’s book), Johnny Depp’s Wonka is all of the above. He also seems as bratty as most of the kids he invites to tour his chocolate factory.
All are owners of a much-prized “golden ticket” that will allow them into Wonkaland, where rivers and waterfalls are made of chocolate, a magic elevator defies the laws of physics, and elf-like “Oompa-Loompas” take care of the small stuff. One of the kids is a glutton, one dominates her parents, another is fiercely competitive; most are ethically challenged. Only one of the ticket-owners, Charlie (Freddie Highmore), is honest and deserving of the tour – and more.
While the story unfolds pretty much as it did 34 years ago, Burton has a significantly larger budget, which he splurges on computer-generated visuals that often accomplish what was technically impossible just a few years ago. One actor (Deep Roy) is transformed into many Oompa-Loompas, a Taj Mahal made of chocolate melts in one gloriously messy scene, and Wonka’s back story turns up in generously illustrated flashbacks.
The son of a fanatical dentist (Christopher Lee), Willy’s jaw was once locked up and he was prevented from eating sweets like lollipops, or, as his father called them, “cavities on a stick.” So he just naturally had to taste forbidden chocolate and make it his lifelong obsession. It’s suggested that his kinship with Charlie has something to do with the fact that Charlie’s dad (Noah Taylor) works in a toothpaste factory.
About 20 minutes longer than the original, John August’s rewrite of Dahl’s 1971 screenplay is filled with references to “Hair” (Wonka greets the kids by singing “Good Morning Starshine”), “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the monolith becomes a Wonka bar, complete with “Zarathustra” fanfare), “Psycho” (the shower scene is reimagined, rather ghoulishly, as a child-torturing device) and “Edward Scissorhands” (Charlie’s snowbound home has an especially Gothic touch).
The new movie often feels less like a remake than a trip through Burtonland, where weird landscapes, Danny Elfman’s spry music and Johnny Depp’s whims threaten to turn the movie into a series of improvisations. Fortunately, there’s more of the classic Burton (“Beetlejuice,” “Ed Wood”) than the problematic Burton (“Big Fish,” “Planet of the Apes”) of recent years.
And the casting couldn’t be much better. Highmore, who was Peter Pan to Depp’s J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland,” has the requisite soul and spirit to play Charlie. Also making solid contributions are David Kelly as Charlie’s young-at-heart grandfather and James Fox as perhaps the most indulgent parent on the planet. Depp’s dark take on Wonka may not become as beloved as Wilder’s version, but his performance is the film’s chief source of welcome surprises.