When I first saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, I thought Gene Wilder’s Wonka was a monster that turned little children into blueberries. (Actually … he was.) It wasn’t until my third or fourth viewing that I was able to see it as something other than a horror story where kids were squeezed, pulled and shrunk. Over the years, the film has become one of my favorite kids’ movies, with a sweet message about being patient and kind, and Wilder’s performance a genius stroke.
I wouldn’t have placed it high atop a list of films in need of a remake, but I wouldn’t have disqualified it either. The original film is imaginative, wondrous fun, but there’s certainly room for improvement on the visuals. Wonka’s effects were great for their time (1971), but Roald Dahl’s world of chocolate and dreams is certainly deserving of a big-budget remake.
For those purists out there who think Willy Wonka is a sacred institution that should remain—as Mr. Wonka once advised in regards to the everlasting gobstopper—untouched, you’ll be missing out on a lot of fun. Tim Burton has done a beautiful job with his remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, staying faithful to the story and putting a couple of his own spins on the tale. Parts of the film feel a little like the first movie, but, in the end, this one stands on its own.
Burton has been toiling in remake land for a while now. Batman, Planet of the Apes (which I liked, much to the chagrin of nearly everybody who reads my reviews), and a botched attempt at Superman stand as proof that Burton has never been afraid to touch somebody else’s stuff. Wonka’s chocolate factory gives the auteur a chance to go visually wild in a way he hasn’t truly accomplished since Edward Scissorhands.
It helps that Scissorhands himself is playing Wonka. There’s some buzz about how Johnny Depp’s portrayal is too weird and unflattering. Yes, he’s weird and creepy, but that’s what happens to you after many years spent hanging out with Oompa Loompas, surrounded by an abundance of candy and avoiding your father. Depp is such a master at inhabiting his characters. With Wonka he disappears, yet again, into the role he’s been assigned.
Decked out in a bob haircut, big teeth and a top hat, Depp looks like somebody who has been living in exile since the ‘60s. He doesn’t play up the loud, grouchy side of Wonka (as Wilder did), but his creation is truly sarcastic, with a demented sense of humor. A story adjustment has Wonka haunted by the memory of his dentist father (Christopher Lee) and some of the movie’s funnier moments consist of Depp’s mannerisms when he’s about to have a flashback.
The kids are perfect, especially Freddie Highmore as the honest and caring Charlie. We last saw Highmore having a touching conversation about death with Depp on a park bench in Finding Neverland. After that tearjerking moment, it’s nice to see Highmore all happy, running around a chocolate factory and eating sweets. Especially impressive is Julia Winter as Veruca Salt, a little girl all too good at appearing shamelessly greedy.
As for the Oompa Loompas, there are many, all played by one man (whose actual name is Deep Roy). Digital technology allows for Roy to perform many overstylized dance numbers (words by Dahl, music by long-time Burton compatriot Danny Elfman). I guess I preferred the original, goofy-looking Loompas to this modern version, but Burton and staff do pull off a cool visual trick, and the musical numbers are a laugh.
Burton and Depp have done a nice job updating something without insulting it. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stands as one of the summer’s best family films, and a return to form for an amazingly gifted director.