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Sorry, Charlie
Johnny Depp's Not Much of a Treat In Tim Burton's 'Chocolate Factory'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 15, 2005

What will Johnny do?

That has been the question on filmgoers' minds since it was announced, just after Johnny Depp's triumphant channeling of Keith Richards in "Pirates of the Caribbean," that he would next play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Would Depp channel Michael Jackson this time? Or the role's 1971 originator, Gene Wilder? Or would he surprise the oddsmakers with something completely, characteristically out there?

Depp's Wonka is certainly out there but -- perhaps because of all the speculative hype, perhaps because remake fatigue is setting in -- it's a major comedown. Sashaying through a performance that seems to be more about his teeth than anything else, Depp has chosen some odd spirits to aid him in his journey to find his inner Willy. There's a smidgen of Mr. Rogers here, a bit of Dana Carvey's Church Lady there; the exaggerated top hat, foppish coat and waxy green pallor suggest a creature worthy of Dr. Seuss, and those prosthetic choppers can't help but recall Depp's own performance as the title character in Burton's 1994 movie "Ed Wood." And that hair--a lacquered pageboy with wisps of Mamie Eisenhower bangs -- that hair can bring to mind only one person these days, and that's the currently incarcerated New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

The cumulative effect isn't pretty. Nor is it kooky, funny, eccentric or even mildly interesting. Indeed, throughout his fey, simpering performance, Depp seems to be straining so hard for weirdness that the entire enterprise begins to feel like those excruciating occasions when your parents tried to be hip. If you have to try that hard, you just aren't. Similarly, Burton, whose keen imagination has come up with an eye-popping palette and occasionally brilliant production design, has labored so hard to make Wonka his own -- giving him a tedious back story, replete with daddy issues -- that he's lost all the subtle humor and understatement that made Roald Dahl's original story, and Mel Stuart's 1971 adaptation, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," so charming in the first place.

You know you're in Burton's world from the movie's lovely opening sequences, which unfold in a snowy modern-day city that could pass for Victorian London. The place is dominated by a chocolate factory that seems plucked fresh from a Pink Floyd album cover. The look is vintage Burton, from its bold, austere aesthetic to its pristine attention to detail; whether it's the retro-looking Wonka delivery bikes or the catawampus shack where Charlie Bucket and his family live, Burton has created a universe full of vibrant color, imagination and warmth.

Then the faces start to melt off the singing puppets, and you remember that Burton's world can be a very dark place indeed. Those puppets appear half an hour into "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," serving as mechanized greeters at Willy Wonka's mysterious candy business, which Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and four other young winners of Golden Tickets are about to tour. Fans of the original "Willy Wonka" are familiar with Charlie's cohorts: there's the bratty Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), the competitive Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), the candy-guzzling Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) and the television-addicted Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). Shortly after the puppets short-circuit and are promptly engulfed in flames, Wonka himself appears, whispering "Good morning, Starshine" in a creepy, breathy falsetto.

The ensuing downward spiral serves only to remind audiences why the original "Willy Wonka" has been an enduring family hit: It's because Stuart understood that Dahl's story wasn't just a fanciful tour through kids' imaginations but a devastating social satire. Most of the movie's action centered on the media frenzy, bare-knuckled greed and warped ambition that erupted over the Golden Tickets; Wonka's factory tour was a sly commentary -- delivered by Wilder with characteristically mordant understatement -- not just on the gluttony, selfishness, snootiness and laziness the characters embodied but also on the odiousness of kids, and overweening parents, in general.

Despite its title, the kids in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" have been all but lost. They still receive their individual comeuppances -- accompanied by MTV-era song-and-dance numbers by the Oompa Loompas -- but the satirical edge has been dulled in a film that is dominated, and ultimately swamped, by its star's mannered, pixilated performance.

And so many flashbacks there are, from old Dr. Wonka burning young Willy's Halloween candy to Willy's later trip to Oompa Loompa Land, where he discovered the tribe of tiny brown men he would bring back to enslave -- sorry, employ -- as laborers in his candy empire. Reportedly, political activists plan to hand out information at theaters playing "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" informing viewers of the real-life chocolate industry's exploitative labor practices. Considering Willy's paternalistic, post-colonial relationship with his "beloved Oompa Loompas" -- here portrayed as digitized copies of the Indian actor Deep Roy -- they seem pretty ripe for organizing themselves.

But such subtext is much less important to Burton than style, which "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" admittedly has in abundance, from its gorgeous set design (the factory's nut-cracking room is particularly groovy) to Willy's ever-changing wardrobe of Jackie O. sunglasses. Still, the film's strenuous efforts at becoming a camp classic eventually begin to wear thin. "Why is everything here so utterly pointless?" a character wails at one point. As Burton shoves "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" down yet one more digressive, if fantastic-looking, path, viewers may well find themselves asking that very question.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for quirky situations, action and mild profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company