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A Semisweet 'Chocolate'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 15, 2005

"CHARLIE AND the Chocolate Factory" is a spectacle to be enjoyed, but only as such. It's a masterful parade of inventiveness. With tongue firmly planted in gloom-and-doomy cheek, director Tim Burton takes us on a ride of over-the-top proportions, which entertains us while tacitly scolding our mass consumptiveness. But in a stroke of apparent self-destruction, he has allowed Johnny Depp to interpret Willy Wonka as an unsettling amalgam of Michael Jackson, Edward Scissorhands and Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe from the TV show "Friends."

" Eeoow ," he says at one point, with that tart Phoebe grimace and Valley accent.

Played by Freddie Highmore, the Charlie Chaplin-featured actor who played opposite Depp in "Finding Neverland," young Charlie Bucket lives with his family, including four grandparents, in a Dickensian British home (seemingly designed by 1920s German expressionists). His father (Noah Taylor) makes little money. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) can only offer insipid cabbage soup to feed the family. And his grandparents lie perpetually in a large bed by the fireside. But they thrive on love and togetherness.

Charlie is obsessed with the chocolate factory that looms above his dirty, industrial town. Run by the reclusive Willy Wonka, its heyday has been over since industrial spies stole Wonka's wonderful candy secrets and he angrily dismissed all his employees. For 15 years, the factory has soldiered on, apparently without workers. But now, Willy has issued a worldwide contest, winners of which will get to see the factory's secrets. One of them, it turns out, will be selected as his heir for the man who has no family. A golden ticket is hidden in five of his chocolate bars, sold around the world. The lucky ones who find the tickets will get a personal tour of the factory.

Charlie's hopes are lit up. But his family can afford to buy Charlie only one candy bar for his birthday. One by one, the winners are announced from around the world: a greedy boy (Philip Wiegratz) from Germany named Augustus Gloop; a snotty, rich Brit girl (Julia Winter) by the name of Veruca Salt; Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), a violent, video-game-obsessed brat from Denver; and uber-competitive Barbie doll Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) from Atlanta.

It's a cinch that Charlie will eventually find the fifth and join those brats on the grand tour. And it will come as no surprise that Willy's going to take a liking to the down-to-earth Charlie. But while that foregone conclusion remains unconcluded, we have a whole inner world to enjoy: a technological wonderland of chocolate (churned by waterfall) and candies; an elevator that shoots up, down, sideways and even slantways; and dozens of teeny-tiny people known as Oompa Loompas (all played by Deep Roy), who make the candy and can improvise an impromptu song-and-dance number like nobody's business.

Willy leads the children and their overprotective, competitive parental chaperones through his fantasy universe as he quietly assesses the brats for their likability. But Willy's no picnic himself. He seems to hate children, and he is equally inaccessible to adults, giving them frosty or sarcastic responses to any smart-alecky questions or reactions they have.

Mindful of the need for large-screen entertainment, Burton has outdone himself, from the chocolate lakes and candy-grass banks, in which the abominable Augustus takes a plunge, to the hilarious routines performed by the Oompa Loompas (their songs created by Burton's regular collaborator, Danny Elfman). And he and screenwriter John August have not held back on the darkly humorous spirit of Roald Dahl's book of the same name.

By Burton's standards, "Charlie" is one of his warmest dramas yet, in terms of the family relationships enjoyed by central character Charlie. Burton never was a warm filmmaker. His antiheroes (in such films as "Edward Scissorhands," "Beetle Juice," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Mars Attacks!" and "Sleepy Hollow") are frequently cold, tortured or barely human, and their family or social relationships aren't much better. He evades this seeming discomfort with human softness with inspired art direction, macabre humor and other imaginative circuitry.

Which is to say "Charlie" the movie will entertain the kids, for sure. But it still feels frosty to the touch. And here comes the big asterisk. People enamored of Gene Wilder's manic, sweet performance in the 1971 "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" may be disappointed in Depp's oddball eccentricity. Of course, Depp should take things in a new direction, or why bother? After all, Wilder's wacky persona took many liberties with Dahl's original creation. But Depp's Wonka is more avian than amiable. Funny and weird this Willy Wonka may be. But charming and fuzzy? Not quite. It's doubtful that Depp's off-kilter interpretation will have any discernible effect on the movie's success. But it remains the movie's most disappointing aspect. Walk away from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and I wager you'll feel not a glimmer of warmth. You may laugh and like, but you won't love with the same enthusiasm. But in a dismal movie season like this summer, most of us are likely to be happy with any confection that goes down this easily.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (PG, 115 minutes) -- Contains offbeat humor and situations, and some mild obscenity. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company