I first encountered candy-maker Willy Wonka and his imagination-defying chocolate factory growing up outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was about seven years old and the 1971 film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder was showing on TV. Needless to say, the sight of several children visiting a candy factory only to get sucked into pipes or to blow up like purple balloons left quite the impression on my young mind – an impression which would manifest itself a few weeks later in my rather horrified reaction to my parents suggestion of a trip to the nearby Hershey Chocolate World for me and my brothers.
So I can report that when an automated musical puppet display welcoming the five lucky Golden Ticket winners to the mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory in the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie And The Chocolate Factory burst into flames, I laughed long and hard, perhaps exorcising some leftover childhood trauma. And this new version of Dahl’s classic may just induce a little trauma of its own, as it rejoices gleefully in its own demented sensibilities. While perhaps a tad dark for the youngest of audience members, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is a twisted treat, a warped ride through Dahl’s tale as filtered through director Tim Burton’s fevered imagination. At its core, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is a story that celebrates childhood’s innocence and imagination. Adults are quick to reject things like chocolate waterfalls and the existence of LoompaLand, which Charlie readily accepts on faith. Therefore, the story is a perfect vehicle to allow Burton to let loose his visual sensibilities, with influences like 1960s op art to German expressionism in evident display. Frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman provides unique musical arrangements for the individual Oompa Loompa songs – ranging from the Bollywood bombast to a 60s “Up With People” feel – while retaining Dahl’s original lyrics.
Over his career, Depp has made a habit out of picking unusual roles and his Willy Wonka is no exception. Depp seems to have approached his characterization from a different direction than Gene Wilder did for the 1971 adaptation of the book. Here, Wonka is more child-like in broader ways. He is more impulsive and less in control of his emotions, quick to anger when someone says something he doesn’t like. This fits in well with the back-story that the script has created for the character. Unfortunately, the film grinds to a halt at the end, when it comes time to resolve the plotline that springs out of this back-story.
Depp is reunited here with his Finding Neverland (2004) costar Freddie Highmore, who plays the kind-hearted Charlie Bucket. Highmore plays the selfless young Charlie with a sincerity that easily carries the first portion of the movie. Unfortunately, once Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) arrive for the tour of Wonka’s factory, they move into the background as Depp’s Wonka takes over the film.