The basic premise remains the same: Five children are granted unique access to the famous factory via five golden tickets hidden in candy bars around the world. Burton at least tries to soften the fact that all the winners are white and speak English by showing scenes of people clamoring for candy across the globe. He then uses his homogeneous characters to his advantage by lampooning them along with Western culture, reserving his sharpest barbs for the two precocious, cruel and overachieving little monsters of American parents.
Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a contemporary, sophisticated satire and spoof, whereas "Willy Wonka," with its sad-eyed protagonists and obsession with spies, is musty Cold War Dickens. Though the bad kids still get what they deserve, there is nothing dark or depressing about Burton's version. The poverty of Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his family (Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, David Kelly) is played for laughs rather than tears. Charlie, in fact, though returned to the title, is exiled to the background once he finds his golden ticket. The show is mostly Burton until we get to Wonka's extravagant lair, and after that moment, all Burton is channeled through Depp.
With false teeth, a bluish tint and the grin of a hyena, Depp looks much better than he did at the Oscars this year, sporting that 19th-century Bohemian look. If there are fond memories of Gene Wilder's melancholy Wonka, they will soon be washed away by Depp's effervescent performance, balanced calmly on the edge of camp, gleefully watching children do themselves in. The role recalls the Hunter S. Thompson that Depp did for Terry Gilliam. It is fear and loathing in a chocolate factory, Raoul Duke on a Gobstopper binge. Because he now resides in open-minded France, Depp won't mind me saying it: His Willy is definitive.
The most audacious thing about this version is its allergic reaction to the family (at least until the bewildering postscript, but more about that later). Wonka stammers over the word "parents," and he generally can't stand children. When they speak, he starts like a skittish horse. He cringes at their touch, mocks their achievements, tries to trip them up whenever possible. He even cuts innocent little Charlie ("And you you're just lucky to be here, aren't you?").
I laughed through it all but could never tell what it was supposed to mean. During one particularly zany moment, a chocolate bar is teleported into a television, specifically into the familiar scene from "2001" where the apes are hooting around the strange black obelisk, now a candy bar. Whether or not kids will think that's funny is hard to say, but their parents will surely wonder what happened to the book's message about honesty being its own reward. Not in Burton's version. Charlie (who got his golden ticket with money he found lying on the ground, it should be noted) doesn't do anything to win Wonka's approval except make a defense for candy. It doesn't have to mean anything, he says. That why it's candy. Fine, but after giving us a ride through candy land, Burton feels compelled to tack on a conventional message, and it doesn't feel convincing or sincere. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is an entertaining work of imagination, but if you want your kids to learn something, there is still only the original. (PG) **** S
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