Burton Reworks ‘Wonka,’ Scores a Sweet Success
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself craving the ingredients of Burton’s fantasy world—from the store signs to the scenery—as much as Wonka’s chocolate river, which looks disturbingly real. You may be forced to run to the concession stand to replenish your SnoCaps.
When you return, however, you will be satisfied to see proof that remakes (and this movie is, for the most part, a remake of the 1971 “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) occasionally succeed.
For months now, a growing contingent has been whining that Burton had no right to ruin a classic. Having spent my own formative years entranced by the catchy, kitschy tunes of “Willy Wonka” I wasn’t alien to this argument. Note to Wonka-snobs: Let. It. Go. It is possible for two movies with the same plot to coexist. The trick is not to recreate, but to reinvent.
The best example of this are the new improved Oompa Loompas. Managing to stick to Roald Dahl’s back story without hitting on the potential racism of the book’s portrait, we are treated to an army of itty bitty people, all digitally depicted by Deep Roy. Though Roy’s facial expressions and personality suit the Loompas, it is their new sense of harmony that really sings out.
Elaborate song and dance sequences—with genres from swing to hard rock to folk to techno funk—accompany advice offering up one delectable sugary concoction after another, all created by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.
An exceptionally strong cast and a few more twists quickly made you forget the original. Charlie is still too saintly, but Freddie Highmore—who should have garnered an Oscar nomination for his heartbreaking performance in “Finding Neverland,” also starring Johnny Depp (Wonka)—has the requisite Dickensian face and sweetly longing eyes. And the optimism of Grandpa Joe, played by excellent character actor David Kelly (“Waking Ned Devine”) nicely balances the humorous cynicism of Grandpa George.
The other children on the factory tour are generally better than their ’70s counterparts, and the roles are juicier. Modernizing Mike Teavee’s addiction from violent TV to violent videogames is obvious, but making him a technology know-it-all is a deeper insight into parents’ simultaneous fear and awe of the younger generation.
The most fitting “sign of the times” transformation, however, is Violet Beauregarde: no longer just interested in gum, Violet is a velour sweatsuited competition freak—egged on by her Soccer (or more appropriately Baton-Twirling) Mom, played deliciously, in matching attire, by Missy Pyle.
Depp, of course, is the star attraction. If any concerns are raised by the original film, they would have to be Gene Wilder’s deep Wonka imprint on the minds of a generation. Depp manages to take an equally bizarre, but entirely different, take on the character. While the film aids this development by adding a lil’ Wonka childhood flashback (featuring B-movie stalwart Christopher Lee as his father, a candy-loathing dentist), Depp’s delivery, as always, is key.
Many have claimed that Depp is channeling Wacko Jacko—a charge Depp rightly denies. Michael Jackson’s recent media attention—coupled with Depp’s playing a pale, effeminately voiced, grown man with father issues, living in a make-believe world—probably fueled the comparison. But the similarities stop there.
Instead, Depp delivers a believable portrayal of a man who couldn’t quite grow up. His juvenile retorts to the children—the funniest lines of the movie—highlight his childlike hostility. While Wilder’s Wonka was randomly quirky, Depp’s Wonka is a socially inept recluse trying desperately to conduct the special tour of his factory the right way.
In the end, Burton’s signature style and imagination is the golden ticket. Just as in “Big Fish,” we are treated to an unreal world where we want to believe. The stark grays of reality—and the gloom of abject poverty—are complemented by the rainbow colors of candy in the Wonka factory and the brilliant blues in the spick-and-span toothpaste plant where Charlie’s father worked.
And even I gasped along with the audience of children as Charlie found his golden ticket, making him one of the chosen few to enter the magical chocolate works. Childhood memories die hard, but for another generation bent on nostalgia, Burton’s “Charlie” might be just the fix their sweet tooth craves.
—Staff writer Margaret M. Rossman can be reached at email@example.com.