Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
dir. Tim Burton
Opens Fri July 15

The easiest charge to level at Tim Burton is that he's more a design fetishist than a director. It's a specious dismissal when you consider the startling humanity and humor of his best work. Still, as years go by, it becomes harder to remember that Burton once seemed like he might become one of the greats. He appears instead to have evolved into a masterful stylist who can't seem to stay interested in his own subject matter for an entire movie.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton's new adaptation of Roald Dahl's... well, you can't really call it beloved children's book, would appear to be an ideal candidate for the alchemy treatment. It's pop but gothic, British but Americanizable, sentimental but full of dark whimsy, with a built-in audience, and, wouldn't you know, a great role for Burton's most fruitful muse, Johnny Depp. It also provides an opportunity for the filmmaker to rescue the more complex aspects of Dahl's book from the treacly musical chestnut made in 1971. The original offered a brilliant performance by the great Gene Wilder, but simplified the story, purged its dramatic complications, and made the whole show about wish fulfillment, class-based piety, and shitty songs. Kids deserve better.

For the first half-hour or so, it feels like Burton might give it to them. Every element is inflected to grotesque perfection. Young Charlie (played by Freddy Highmore, the lachrymose waif from Finding Neverland) is a ragamuffin's ragamuffin. The home he shares with his parents and grandparents (all in one bed, naturally) is a masterpiece of imaginative dilapidation—leaning dramatically to one side, as holey as a mouthful of cavities. The great white chocolate factory, meanwhile, looms large in every exterior, high atop Charlie's gloomy world of poverty and gray tones, like Xanadu in Citizen Kane. Only instead of sleds, statues, and Orson Welles, this stately pleasure dome is full of candy, Oompa Loompas, and Johnny Depp. The promise, it should go without saying, is tantalizing. But when Burton takes us inside the palace, and brings us face to face with the kooky wizard himself, the whole movie falls to pieces.

After a lifetime of Gene Wilder's Wonka—a little cranky, but ultimately benevolent, earnest, and lovable—it's hard to overstate just how jarring Depp's characterization is. And not because he's playing the Wonka from the book. He's not. From the moment he makes his big entrance, cheering as an "It's a Small World"–style diorama bursts into flames, it's plain to see that Johnny Depp is in a world, and indeed a film, all his own. That's fine, actually. Depp's at his best in this mode; like Bill Murray and Peter Sellers before him, he has long since mastered the secret art of being better than the films he acts in. Unfortunately, Burton either doesn't know or doesn't care that the source material is being undermined by Depp's inventions.

This Wonka is an agoraphobic obsessive-compulsive, too terrified of children to be anything but hostile toward them. Many have pointed out the possibility that Depp is doing a Michael Jackson riff here, much the same way he did a Keith Richards one in Pirates of the Caribbean. This actually does his performance a disservice. It's got more Ed Wood or Ichabod Crane (or Tim Burton, more to the point) in it than it does MJ. At least Wonka seems to like his work.

The problem—or maybe the point—is that the chocolate factory just isn't very magical. Given the infinite possibilities of digital effects, Burton fails to invest the space with any sense of dimension. From a design perspective, it's hugely impressive, but that's a given. What it isn't is magical. There's no reason to think that Charlie would ever want to inherit it in the first place, and Wonka is too kinky and weird to plausibly befriend the little guy anyway. Even the golden ticket scene feels unearned.

All that's left is the candy (which, again, suffers from serious magic deficit), and the Oompa Loompas, who, in Burton's vision, are cloned from the same Indian-African-American little man, and who spoil the one thing this new version really has going for it: They sing songs.

Kids still deserve better.