Bitter Candy 

Match-up of Tim Burton and Roald Dahl proves too good to be true

Match-up of Tim Burton and Roald Dahl proves too good to be true

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Opening Friday at area theaters

For children of the 1970s, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the movie that produced a generation of grade-school acid casualties. It's a weird movie, Willy Wonka—and that's even before the psychotropic Doors-concert boat ride down a river of goo. It's a movie for kids, but it's not exactly a movie that likes kids. Except for the bighearted hero, Charlie Bucket, its child characters embody the worst of human nature; its disapproving-adult sensibility doesn't really distinguish crimes from nuisances. In its hierarchy of sins, popping gum ranks right up there with gluttony and avarice.

Then, of course, there's that lava-lamp ride down the river of goo. I don't think the makers of Willy Wonka said, "Hey, let's make a children's movie that'll look like an LSD trip and freak out the tots." That was a residual effect of the cheap special effects and the cautionary creepiness of the story. With Tim Burton's big-budget version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I'm not so sure. Self-indulgently bizarre and strenuously visualized, it's trippy and grotesque by design: it's an ideal beddie-bye movie, if your kid is Dennis Hopper.

Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starts as a kid's nightmare of socialization: a boy leaves his house and the comfort of family, only to find that other kids are jerks and the adults can't be trusted. Five children win golden tickets to the reclusive Willy Wonka's top-secret chocolate factory. Four are overprivileged brats; only plucky Charlie, who is literally starving, understands the luxury and allure of chocolate.

The other four kids get their just desserts in sinister ways, yet Dahl's macabre cheek never quite tips over into full-blown misanthropy. But that's in print. It's funnier to read about a piggish boy getting sucked up a fudge pipeline than to watch him struggle and suffer. The same goes for a gum-smacking girl who turns into a giant blueberry: it's no fun to watch a scared kid swell to the point of bursting in too-graphic CGI. Whimsy is fragile, and filming it is tough—it loses its charm if it looks too literal.

On paper, the match of Burton's morbid wit and Dahl's malicious black humor sounds too good to be true, especially with Johnny Depp as Wonka. It is, although screenwriter John August has honored the book with a close adaptation. The early scenes are delightful, mostly because they focus on the Charlie of Freddie Highmore, a child actor who conveys sweetness and decency without begging for sympathy. The sequences with Charlie, his struggling parents (Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter) and his spry Grandpa Joe (a twinkly David Kelly) have an emotional directness Burton hasn't mustered since Edward Scissorhands.

It vanishes, though, once the focus shifts to Wonka. It may be that Burton, working for the first time with a child protagonist instead of a childlike adult, felt more comfortable following the man-child candy maker; it may be that Depp simply takes over by right of billing. But his fluttery, often funny pampered-pop-star performance never really gels, especially once the movie introduces a maudlin subplot about Wonka's daddy issues. Gene Wilder, in the 1971 film, played Wonka as he would appear to Charlie—aloof and ambiguous, but with an underlying sense of wonder that emerged fully at the end to reward the boy. Depp's star turn obscures the triumph of Charlie's goodness.

As a display of technique and art direction, Burton's film trounces the '71 version. With production designer Alex McDowell ransacking visual glitz from boy-band videos, Busby Berkeley and Bollywood, Burton stages dazzling trompe l'oeil set pieces in Wonka's factory. On sets the color of Life Savers, the newfangled Oompa-Loompas (played by one amusingly dour actor named Deep Roy, in endless Xerox reductions) perform dead-on Danny Elfman parodies of Queen and Smile-era Brian Wilson. As always, everything delights Burton except the story. The ending of Willy Wonka actually improved upon Dahl's (and this one's). It required Charlie to demonstrate his moral fiber, not just win by default. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may deliver a bigger bonbon, but it has an empty center.

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