CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (Tim Burton). 115 minutes. Opens Friday (June 15). For venues and times, see Movies, page 89. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
If you're going to make a movie about an oddball single man who invites young children into his fantasy-land home, is it wise to have him resemble Michael Jackson?
Tim Burton's take on the Roald Dahl children's classic Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is note-perfect except for Johnny Depp (De Niro to Burton's Scorsese) as chocolatier extraordinaire Willy Wonka. His face seemingly frozen in an overly made-up mask, with a lilting voice and more quirks than you can shake an ornately carved stick at, Depp appears to be channelling the recently acquitted King of Pop. Your mother warned you about taking candy from strangers.
The Wonka of the book was eccentric but not creepy, a balance that's apparently hard to achieve. In 1971's Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder was utterly bland; in the current version, Depp veers too far in the other direction.
Everywhere else the new flick kicks the old one's ass (despite the fact that Dahl wrote the 1971 film's screenplay). It's funnier, the chocolate looks better, the factory looks slightly less like the Merry Pranksters' living room, and the Oompa Loompas sing Dahl's songs rather than the stupid ditty of the first film. Screenwriter John August has given Wonka an unnecessary backstory but otherwise follows the book without being slavish.
Freddie Highmore, Depp's co-star in Finding Neverland, plays Charlie Bucket, the poor kid who finds the last golden ticket allowing him inside Wonka's wondrous factory. In children's books the main characters are often kids, but it's adult actors who have name recognition. This leads to situations like the Harry Potter films, in which middling child actors are upstaged by the cream of British acting. Highmore, though, holds his own against the adult cast and probably could have carried the film. He's the least sickly sweet thing onscreen, in fact.
If you're a fan of the book and can ignore your inner voice shouting, "Willy Wonka is nothing like that!", you'll love this movie.
Just remember to book a dental appointment, because you'll be craving chocolate when you leave.