By Chuck Wilson
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With the Michael Jackson trial over, it's a shade less discomfiting to watch Johnny Depp, as reclusive candy wizard Willy Wonka, escort five children and their guardians through his factory-fortress in Tim Burton's enjoyable Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Depp's cadences occasionally echo his double-W predecessor Gene Wilder's, but his eccentricity is less florid. Hysterically awkward in his Jacko-pale skin (and Anna Wintour haircut), Wonka-Depp is a monster of remoteness who reads boilerplate off cue cards, relates only to his knee-high Oompa-Loompa workers, and can't enunciate the word parents.
Roald Dahl's 1964 kid-lit classic is a dose of moral entertainment packed with enough flights of fancy for a dozen books. The author disliked Mel Stuart's 1971 version (thus scotching any plans to film the even wilder Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and while it's hard to guess whether he'd cotton to this Burtonization, the current film has plenty of soul amid the cartoon-machined. Finding Neverland's Freddie Highmore is believable and likable as good egg Charlie Bucket, son of a destitute toothpaste cap twister-onner. He's the last to find a golden ticket tucked in a bar of Wonka chocolate and joins the other winners for a day-long tour of Wonka's Xanadu.
The rest of the pint-size cohort epitomize childhood's four deadly sins: gluttony in D chowhound Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), greed in spoiled brat Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), competitiveness in self-promoting gum chewer Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), and aggression in first-person-shooter virtuoso Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry). (Winter is especially fine; impatient for the factory doors to open, she demands of her dad, "Make time go faster!") Burton's zippy introductions to these grotesques hit just the right note, and we're a little unwilling to lose themas good as Highmore is, he's necessarily a bit of a cipher by comparison. For the tour is actually a rigged affair, a process of elimination as efficient as that in Ten Little Indians. ("I do say, that seemed all rather rehearsed," notes Veruca's father, after seeing the Oompas celebrate the first victim's removal.)
Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins has Bruce Wayne confronting childhood traumathink of Liam Neeson's ninja-mensch as a very hands-on shrink. (It reads like apocryphal Freud: the case of the "Bat Man.") In a goofier spirit, C&CF explains Wonka's weirdness by getting inside his head. Most of the brainwork comes courtesy of Charlie's innocent questions, each of which ("Do you remember the first candy you ever ate?") plunges Wonka into mournful reverie. It turns out that his dentist father (Christopher Lee) forbade him all sweets, even on Halloween, leading to a filial rupture. (Call this one the "Candy Man.") This is screenwriter John August's addition to Dahl's taleit's superfluous, but executed with a light touch and complete with hilariously significant wordplay (hairfor heir). It also works as a razzperhaps unwittingof Big Fish, Burton's ponderously whimsical melodrama of father-son disconnect, which August also scripted.
A few witty allusions pop up: Wonka's pose at a ribbon cutting recalls Burton-Depp's Edward Scissorhands, and Mike Teavee's video transmigration lands him in 2001, where a chocolate bar replaces Kubrick's primate-provoking monolith. Though Wonka tells his guests (upon entering a candied meadow) to "try some of my grass," the inherent psychedelia is curbed in favor of comedy. (The Oompa-Loompas, all played by Deep Roy, are much less of a bad trip than their orange-fleshed 1971 counterparts.) Fun and nourishing, Charlie's the topsy-turvy equivalent of a three-course dinner in a single stick of gum.
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