Tim Burton's delicious new movie.

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July 14 2005 7:34 PM

Eye Candy

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is freakishly amusing.

Depp's Wonka has emotional baggage, but little variety. Click image to expand.
Depp's Wonka has emotional baggage, but little variety

The cloying 1971 eyesore Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory might have left you with the impression that "the candyman can [take tomorrow, dip it in a dream, etc.] 'cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good." (Sorry if I've brought back the dulcet tones of Sammy Davis Jr.) But it's not easy to sugarcoat Roald Dahl's moralism—or sadism—in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which four self-indulgent brats (but not little Charlie Bucket, the darling hero) get their just, uh, desserts. As the reclusive candy mogul, Gene Wilder used his gift for seeming insane but also a sweetheart: He twinkled as he oversaw the punishment of the spoiled snoot Veruca Salt, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, and the boob-tube addict Mike Teavee. In the new Tim Burton version, properly titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros.), Johnny Depp is not so reassuring. He's a spaced-out, whey-faced child-man with saucer eyes: a blend of Carol Channing and Michael Jackson. He also has a king-sized chocolate chip on his shoulder.

This is a dazzling movie, yet some people (not kids, but maybe their parents) will be put off by its Grand Guignol ghoulishness. And Depp does take some getting used to. He has conceived Wonka as a smiling passive-aggressive, a Mr. Freeze weighed down by emotional baggage, and he doesn't have much variety. Like the first Burton/Depp fusion, Edward Scissorhands, his Wonka is stunted—deformed by inept parenting. (The resemblance to Edward is pointed up with a gag: In a flashback, Wonka cuts the ribbon on his candy factory and, from behind, the shears extend from his sleeves.)

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Edward the visionary artist tended to slash himself and other people without meaning to; it was Burton's way of saying, "I can't help my hostility, it's how I was made." Wonka's dearness, on the other hand, is too creepy to fool anyone. Burton and screenwriter John August have added a psychological back story that isn't in the book: The factory is an escape from—and a retaliation against—Wonka's repressive dentist father (played by horror great Christopher Lee), who forbade his son to eat candy and imprisoned him in a variety of medieval-torturelike braces and retainers. Now, Willie is the ultimate eternal adolescent artist who shuns family (he can't even get the word "parent" out of his mouth) and retreats into a world of his own creation.

The Neverland-as-Oedipal-revenge is very Michael Jackson, too, and I imagine that the extra bit of perversity helped to fuel Burton's already revved-up visual imagination. He and designer Alex McDowell plainly revel in the silky-chocolate waterfall, the edible brightly colored landscape, and the Rube Goldberg-like candy machines. There's none of the dinner-theater-NutcrackerSuite tackiness of the old Willy Wonka. In Burton's chocolate factory, the central park has a Dr. Seuss-like swirliness, but every marvel is double-edged: You can consume it, and it can consume you.

This movie is a riot of fiendish invention. The Oompa Loompas—diminutive tree people who keep the factory going in exchange for all the cacao beans they can eat—are all played, via some of the best computer trickery I've ever seen, by the vaguely malevolent Indian actor Deep Roy. Their mocking epitaphs for each gruesomely dispatched child are show-stopping production numbers, each in a different musical style: Bollywood/Busby Berkeley, disco, etc. The music is by the impishly brilliant Danny Elfman. His name fits.

Burton doesn't just savor the sets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; he lingers on the faces, too. Freddie Highmore's Charlie doesn't actually have much screen time (he's a remarkably passive protagonist), but every time he gets a close-up those teacup ears make you laugh, and he matches up perfectly with the gaunt Noah Taylor (as his dad) and the gaunter David Kelly (as Grandpa Joe). As Augustus Gloop, Philip Wiegratz has cheeks so round and balloon-smooth I was convinced they were a special effect, and Julia Winter's rich-girl Veruca Salt has sharp blue eyes and exaggerated English horse-teeth.

The addictions of the two other winners of the Wonka-candy-bar gold tickets have been partially updated. Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry) is now a video-game zombie—perfect. And Violet Beauregarde is a fiercely driven karate expert as well as a gum-chewer. It would have been nice if Burton and August had figured out a way to work martial arts into her finale—and do martial-arts and gum-chewing even fit together? The film is set in the present, but it's a hodgepodge of contemporary and Victorian references, and not everything gels. Candy-chemist though he is, it's odd to hear Wonka hold forth about chocolate and the release of endorphins.

Dahl wrote some great horror stories, so it's no surprise that Burton's movie often edges into the macabre. Depp's Wonka has a whiff of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera—the master torturer. And every set-piece is a mini-horror movie. Veruca's comeuppance in the Nut Room is better than anything in either Willard. The squirrels that crack the walnuts are a mixture of the real and computer-generated, but the blending is seamless, and they seem as sly and knowing as their master. Burton's joy makes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory freakishly amusing from start to finish, even when those everlasting gobstoppers get stuck in our throats.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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