1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a surreal gem--starring Gene Wilder at his most brilliantly understated, it was a knockout adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book. Tim Burton & Co. have sworn up and down that their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory isn't a remake of that old material, but it is. It tells the same story and has the exact same characters. And, all traditionalist snap judgments aside, it's not bad--it's bigger, more lavish, and, especially considering its $150 million budget, it's surprisingly and refreshingly sinister.
But let's get to the big question: How's Johnny Depp? Well… it depends on how you look at it. Once again, he uses inspired vocal inflections and facial expressions to create an entirely unique character. His Willy Wonka is unforgettably prissy, swishy, distant… and oddly unlikable. Wilder's Wonka was dark, but he had a glint of good cheer and an effortless control over the proceedings, whereas Depp's androgynous candyman is a fey, purple-gloved fop who doesn't seem to like anyone but himself. Depp is always interesting to watch, but here he seems to be doing weird for weirdness' sake. The results are rather off-putting--especially since, to give Wonka as much screen time as possible, emphasis has been removed from Charlie (played by the remarkable Freddie Highmore).
The other children are strangely removed from the proceedings as well. They all meet their requisite fates (Violet = blueberry; Mike Teavee = small; Augustus Gloop = sucked into the chocolate vats), but only the spoiled Veruca Salt resonates, and that's due largely to the amazing set piece in which she meets her demise--an enormous room filled with creepy real-life squirrels. (Indeed, the visual treats are all astounding. The famed candy meadow room is a stadium-sized fantasy world, full of lush, edible grass and that tantalizing chocolate river; the factory's exterior is all bleak, Stalin-esque walls and menacing gates.)
In terms of sheer spectacle, Burton's never been stronger and the film never drags, though it never quite thrills either. Depp's just too discomforting to completely embrace as a main character, and the narrative never builds to any satisfying resolution. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does, however, inflict unapologetic, cruel punishment on four very obnoxious children. And while I don't think it had any impact on the screaming, mouth-breathing kids that made up most of my screening's audience, that's a moral lesson that never gets old.