It's fitting that we get our first glimpse of Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, in Tim Burton's darkly sweet new film of the Roald Dahl classic "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," through candy glass — he peers at us from behind the screen of a translucent lollipop, evading our gaze. As he did in "Pirates of the Caribbean," this ever-morphing actor (he's like Wonka's candies that magically change color) slips into a new and thoroughly weird persona to play the famous candymaker. You don't know where this performance is coming from; the line readings that issue from his marshmallow-pale, violet-eyed persona are always unexpected. This Wonka is nervous, giggly, off his rhythms, unsure of himself. He needs a Charlie — and a family — to complete him.
Wonder, if you wish, why Burton wanted to make another movie of a book that's already found its way to film very nicely, in the 1971 Gene Wilder-starring "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" that's beloved by many. Wonder, too, why Depp looks and sounds just a teeny bit like Michael Jackson, and why this Wonka seems clearly more freakish than the novel's hyperkinetic but friendly figure. Those who fret when filmmakers take liberties with books (as, inevitably, they must) might be better off at home, curled up with the print version of "Charlie" — and a very happy evening they'll spend, too. (I did it myself, just the other night, with my well-thumbed childhood copy of the book — thanks, Mom.)
But moviegoers young and not-so-young who appreciate dazzling visuals, dark humor and heartfelt storytelling shouldn't miss Burton's film, which goes down as deliciously as one of Wonka's creations. Depp's oddball-but-mesmerizing turn is paired with a more conventional — and effortlessly sweet — performance by young Freddie Highmore (who co-starred with Depp in "Finding Neverland") as Charlie. This boy, poor in material things but rich in love and character, is the story's real hero, with Wonka as the character role, and the two actors neatly balance each other out — creating, by the film's ending, a genuine bond.
Along the way, Burton's trademark eye for color and detail treats us to a feast. The shack in which the Bucket family lives — Charlie, his parents and four grandparents — looks like a strong wind could blow it over; it tilts precariously to one side, but its windows glow with warmth. Wonka's factory, looming above the city (which appears to be a fantasy London), is by contrast forbidding; even its interiors have a darkness to them. The Oompa Loompas — all played by one actor (Deep Roy), magically duplicated into an army — contribute straight-from-the-book musical numbers, one of which includes a nifty Busby Berkeley-esque overhead routine.
And the casting is spot-on, from Charlie's loving family to the four other Golden Ticket holders, all memorably bratty. Julia Winter, as rich girl Veruca Salt, shows a real comic flair; pointing her sharp little chin and shouting "Daddy! Make time go faster!" (As readers of the book know, she gets her comeuppance, in the form of dozens of very well-trained squirrels.)
There's plenty here for adults to enjoy (not the least of which is the spin Depp puts on lines like "You're all quite short, aren't you?"), but the film — as was the book — is primarily for children, who should have a swell time in this magical, chocolate-covered world. Very young children may find parts of it too frightening, particularly the often-menacing Danny Elfman music. But the kids who accompanied me to the screening — ages 8 and 10 — had a swell time, pronouncing it cool, a little weird (in a good way) and not too scary. By its irresistibly charming ending, as powdered-sugar snow falls and the narrator tells us that "life had never been sweeter," Burton has pulled off the near-impossible: a fresh look at a classic.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," with Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Missi Pyle, James Fox, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee. Directed by Tim Burton, from a screenplay by John August, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. 117 minutes. Rated PG for quirky situations, action and mild language. Several theaters. Also opening in IMAX at the Pacific Science Center.