Four out of five dentists recommend Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and why shouldn't they? It's going to bring them an awful lot of business, either that or put them out of business. For director Tim Burton, in reimagining Roald Dahl's classic children's book, has not only whipped up one of the most scrumpdillyishus confections ever put on the silver screen, he's laced it with strychnine. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a lacerating satire, lampooning the very kids who are drawn to its hallucinogenic treats ' i.e., the screaming cherubs in the audience. Bittersweet at best, the movie all but rubs kids' love for candy in their sweet little faces. In fact, I'm not sure Burton even likes kids. God knows Willy Wonka doesn't.
As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Willy is an eccentric recluse ensconced in his own private Neverland, a theme park with candy as the theme. In interviews, Depp has been pooh-poohing the Michael Jackson connection, to which I can only say: Unh-huh. But in his defense, Jacko is only one of the ingredients in this gourmet recipe. I also thought I detected a little bit of Norman Bates in there, even some Tommy Tune. But Depp clearly has no intention of letting us behind the curtain. In fact, the character is almost as sealed off from us as Depp's Ed Wood was, an animatron. The difference is that Ed Wood was an optimistic simpleton (boring), whereas Willy Wonka is a complex cynic (interesting). Gene Wilder, eat your chocolate-covered heart out.
Actually, Wilder, with his lightning-quick changes of mood and bizarrely frizzy hair, was the best thing about the 1970 movie version, which lodged itself in the hearts of small children and the minds of somewhat larger children who, still reeling from the psychedelic '60s, knew a head trip when they saw one. But the original's production values were rather lo-cal, whereas Burton has been given $150 million to spend at the candy stores of his choice. The result is a deliriously creepy wonderland that rivals the North Pole of Robert Zemeckis' underrated Polar Express in its dystopian allure. When Burton's left to his own devices, as he was here, there's nobody in the world who's more cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.
Fortunately, the movie also has a soft, chewy center, thanks in part to Freddie Highmore's delicate performance as Charlie, the boy who makes Oliver Twist look like a spoiled brat. Burton revels in Charlie's Dickensian surroundings ' the soot-gray poverty that contrasts sharply with the factory's candy-colored dÃcor. But what really gives him a sugar high is eliminating Charlie's fellow contestants one by one, each of them representing a trait that Dahl couldn't stand in little people. Forty years and millions of cavities later, they're still getting their just desserts, this time courtesy of one of the strangest strangers who ever offered candy to children. For is there not also a pinch of Tim Burton in Depp's portrayal?