If the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory served as a sweetly psychedelic freak-out with Gene Wilder’s gobstopping candyman as scolding guide, Tim Burton’s more lavish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—driven by Johnny Depp’s maladjusted, parent-hating Wonka—is akin to a disappointingly tame acid trip. With characters whose countenances have been abnormally airbrushed with not-quite-human glossiness, Burton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic kids’ story is both more polished and sinister than Mel Stuart’s 1971 version, delivering a dash of the surreal, a dollop of the bizarre, and a healthy dose of the grotesque as it recounts the magical tour of Wonka’s chocolate factory taken by four disobedient brats and poor, kind-hearted Charlie (Freddie Highmore) and his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly). But saccharine timidity is what’s really served up by this cinematic summer bonbon, as the director seems unwilling to fully commit to the menacing nastiness that was always the most intriguing aspect of Dahl’s beloved tale. Burton’s Wonka is a kook, to be sure, but with a traumatic childhood backstory that elucidates the root causes of the chocolatier’s eccentricities, and with a surprisingly docile tone that’s more peculiar than petrifying, his foray to the famous factory becomes something of a gooey mess.
Not that this latest Chocolate Factory isn’t still, in many ways, superior to its big-screen predecessor. Thankfully gone are the awful song-and-dance routines performed by Charlie’s mom, Grandpa Joe, and Wonka, all of which have been replaced by elaborate musical numbers (scored with gusto by Danny Elfman) staged by the latex suit-wearing Oompa Loompas (Deep Roy) at the conclusion of each tyke’s departure. While none of these compositions is likely to make one forget the Oompa Loompas’ trademark ditty, their lyrics’ suggestion that Wonka has orchestrated the unfortunate demise of gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb), spoiled Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), and video game-loving Mike Teavee (Jordon Fry) generates an undercurrent of mischievous mayhem that one wishes was further exploited.
Courtesy of production design (by Alex McDowell) that regularly creates terror from assembly line imagery, Charlie’s slanty-angled shanty home and Wonka’s cocoa waterfall room—where everything, including giant Alice in Wonderland mushrooms, is edible—exhibit a Dali-esque strangeness that’s simultaneously inviting and off-putting. These and other funhouse-mirror wonders are playfully kid-unfriendly, from the oddly unsettling animatronic puppet show (replete with an impromptu fiery finale) that Wonka prepares for his stunned guests, to the quick snippets of Veruca, Violet, and Mike’s home lives that nicely elucidate the selfish beastliness spawned from overly permissive parenting.
As Wonka, Depp comes across like the bastard offspring of The Joker and an extraterrestrial mannequin, his pasty face, perfectly coiffed brown hair, and top hat giving him a clown-gone-awry appearance that complements his strangely cheerless smile, bug eyes, and gawky, stilted mannerisms. One of Burton’s typical outsider protagonists, Wonka is bestowed with a plethora of snippy lines (the best of which involve accusing Mike Teavee of mumbling), and when he’s allowed to run with his character’s man-child weirdness—such as during an impromptu jig during an Oompa Loompa concert—the actor locates the socially retarded recluse cowering underneath Wonka’s carnival barker exterior.
Big Fish scribe John August’s script, however, saddles Wonka with flashbacks to his flavorless youth as the orthodontia equipment-adorned son of a dentist (the perfectly cast Christopher Lee), and such exposition not only saps the candy mogul of his disturbing mysteriousness, but ultimately leads to a new ending that switches the thematic focus from that of adolescents’ (and adults’) monstrousness to the virtue of familial togetherness. Coupled with Burton’s wishy-washy decision to show the bad kids emerging from the factory at film’s conclusion (rather than having them remain off-screen as in the first movie, which subtly implied that they’d perished), the film exudes an air of apprehension, as if afraid to push the boundaries of PG creepiness lest it excessively upset its under-15 audience. Whereas it should be scary, this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory instead turns out to be just sickly sweet.