As soon as the theater lights dim, Tim Burton's latest vividly constructed fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, must contend with two large ghosts -- the popular Roald Dahl children's novel which the film is based upon, and the much-loved and somewhat cultish 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder. Undoubtedly there will be quibbling from both camps, but Burton has mostly succeeded in re-presenting Charlie's story with all its cozy familiarity while making the film feel fresh.
In the preamble, we learn that five children who find gold tickets hidden in Wonka chocolate bars will tour the factory of reclusive candy-maker Willy Wonka. The first four tickets go to odious sorts from around the globe: fattie Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz), rich kid Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), overachieving Violet Beauregarde (AnnaSophia Robb), and vidiot Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry). The fifth ticket is found just yards from the factory by Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), a sweet kid who lives with his impoverished extended family in what appears to be Dr. Caligari's old digs, a ramshackle hut bent all askew.
The ticket gambit is just a tease: The kids -- and us -- want to see what magic awaits in the factory. Here, depicting the fantastical hyper-colored candyrama with its outlandish machines, strange creatures and dreams-come-to-life (a candy boat on a river of chocolate!), Burton is on familiar, easy turf. (Grass, by the way, is edible at Wonka Co.) He unpacks his prodigious bag of tricks -- obsessive set decoration, CGI, Danny Elfman score, trained squirrels -- but pretty pictures are only so much.
It's the freakishly buoyant Johnny Depp, as Willy Wonka, who shoulders the majority of the remake's burden. Presumably given free rein at mannered pantomime after his scene-stealing in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp portrays the chocolatier as a troubled man-child, sustained by and trapped in the fantasy world of his own creation. He dresses like a foppish dandy, his visage mask-like -- taught white skin, rosy lipstick and too-perfect teeth, framed by a pageboy bob and enormous sunglasses. (Depp claims Vogue editor Anna Wintour as inspiration, and I'll not dispute it.) Wonka is impervious, slightly mad, brilliant and probably over-medicated. Depp unpacks so many vocal tics ("'Kay?") and mugs so shamelessly that his performance is on the knife-edge of irritating and distracting.
The script, adapted by John August, keeps Dahl's sharpness: The four naughty children are quite awful, and are disposed of with a fair amount of gleeful relief by Wonka. Less satisfactory is Wonka's backstory (with coda) that August and Burton have added. Maybe it's today's obsessively navel-gazing culture that must account somehow for every aspect of the human condition, but does it really matter what childhood trauma made Wonka the oddball he is? If nothing else, the additional syrupy narrative, with its Hallmark-style lessons learned, drains the film's last reel of its zippy, fantastical energy. A colorful bon-bon of a film doesn't require the resolution of "issues." Burton should have taken a tip from young Charlie: "Candy doesn't have to have a point -- that's why it's candy."