No everlasting gobstopper here: Depp confers with Roy
I've heard from friends and readers that I was far too hard on Batman Begins. Perhaps, but the summer blockbuster failed to engage me on nearly every level (and I even saw it in IMAX), so I feel no great obligation to be a cheerleader for it.
I suspect I'm about to get the same whip-lashing over Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a movie that should have dazzled in ways unimaginable, but ultimately turns out to be as dull as a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream melting on a hot summer sidewalk.
This Charlie makes you long to revisit the original film adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's book, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The retelling of the story is pretty much a carbon copy, minus the original's syrupy musical numbers (though this version has a few odd musical numbers to call its own, all performed by the diminutive Oompa Loompas, and canvassing styles from Bollywood to Busby Berkeley to Queen) and the addition of an emotional back story for confectioner extraordinaire Willy Wonka, in an obvious and fumbling attempt to explain his eccentric ways (he's the mistreated son of a stern dentist).
Directed by Tim Burton, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has plenty of atmosphere, but little else. The only moment in which the film roars to life is set amid a white and pastel-blue room occupied by nut-shelling squirrels. The rodents swarm spoiled rich kid Veruca Salt -- one of five lucky children to win an exclusive tour inside the secretive Wonka Chocolate Factory -- and, relegating her as a bad nut, toss her into the trash. It's a vigorous, involving sequence.
Burton, who began his weird and wacky film career with Pee Wee's Big Adventure and who created the dark and poignant fable, Edward Scissorhands, seemed a natural to tackle Dahl's dark, satirical material. But for all his efforts, the film remains static, unmoving. It fizzles like a lone Pop Rock placed on the tip of a tongue.
While not as dreadful as Burton's last foray into remake territory -- the barely watchable Planet of the Apes -- it leaves you feeling ambivalent. You don't walk out of the theater elated and overjoyed, feeling as though you've just been treated to a glorious special event. You walk out wondering into which pocket you put your car keys.
Johnny Depp, a Burton staple, gives a slightly more ambitious performance than the original's Gene Wilder, but he lacks Wilder's underlying humanity, which, when combined with a hint of wry, sarcastic menace, resulted in something unforgettable. Depp's Wonka is so all over the map -- he's childish, he's menacing, he's '60s hip, he's introspective -- you never know what's coming next. Ultimately, however, Depp fails at his task; he overreaches, straining to be patently bizarre. As a result, his Wonka doesn't leave much of an impression at all.
There are a few terrific performances -- Freddie Highmore, with his expressive eyes and serious yet eternally hopeful visage makes a fine Charlie Bucket -- and David Kelly is a spry and warm Grandpa Joe. Indeed, all the Buckets -- including Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor as Charlie's parents -- are terrific. Their scenes are the best in the movie.
The remaining four children who tour the factory are portrayed with gusto by the young actors hired to fill their stereotype-drenched parts, but there's nothing remarkable about their one-note expressions of arrogance, gluttony, greed and boastfulness.
Finally, there are the pint-sized Wonka workerbees, the Oompa Loompas, dozens of them, all portrayed by one actor -- Deep Roy -- whose performance was digitally replicated. They're not as off-putting as the orange-faced creepy-clown creatures that marched through the original (singing that awful Oompa Loompa refrain), but neither are they all that remarkable.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could never have lived up to its own hype. In these days of weekly summer blockbuster churn, few movies can. But it could have been better than it ultimately is. Otherwise what was the point in remaking it to begin with?
"Candy doesn't have to have a point," says Charlie, "that's why it's candy."
Movies, however, do. That's why they're movies.