There's a telling scene in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" where one of the bratty kids -- a winner of one of five golden tickets that earns them a spot on a private tour of said factory where everything is edible -- seems miffed and incredulously asks why everything there seems so completely pointless.
His guide -- a peculiar dandy who comes off like a cross between Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson and any garden variety movie mental patient with a dreamy temperament -- answers with the nearly lyrical response that candy doesn't have a point and that's why it is what it is. Audiences may view the film the same way -- either as pointless quirkiness or as a sweet concoction that goes down easy and has no purpose other than to make people happy.
If some of the above sounds familiar, that's because this is another interpretation of Roald Dahl's novel of the same name that was previously made into "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." I haven't read Dahl's original work and it's been a while since I saw the earlier version that came out way back in 1971 and has been entertaining kids ever since. Rumored reports state that Dahl wasn't happy with the first film (despite writing the screenplay), but I'm not sure how he'd feel about this version that -- so I've been told -- has embellishments that didn't appear in the original work.
As is the case with most remakes, the question that immediately comes to mind is how the film compares to the original. While I suppose one should judge a work on its own, standalone merits, such comparisons are inevitable and actually warranted since one is apt to ask why the story needed to be retold in the first place. While the main plot is basically the same, there are differences in the particulars. And the most notable is how the character of Willy Wonka is portrayed.
In the prior version, Gene Wilder played Wonka as a mixture of stand-in for a stern father figure of the era and a "come see my toys" inventor. A little odd and even a bit menacing at times, he was -- in my view -- a perfect portrayal of the character.
Here, director Tim Burton ("Big Fish," "Planet of the Apes") has teamed up once again with star Johnny Depp ("Finding Neverland," the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films) to put an entirely new spin on the character. Depp's Wonka is a standoffish but whimsical man-child, something of a higher functioning Edward Scissorhands sans the those steely appendages (although a brief bit of homage puts such tools back in Depp's hands for a ribbon cutting ceremony).
This Wonka is also a conflicted soul, with a troubled childhood past that still torments him to this day. And that's where Burton and screenwriter John August ("Big Fish," the "Charlie's Angels" films) add new material to the story in the form of flashbacks to Wonka's childhood where his dentist father -- played by Christopher Lee (the "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings" films) -- commands that the boy never eat any candy. I'm not sure if that's more homage to Scissorhands (where Vincent Price played the title character's "father") or whether Burton has some such unresolved issue himself, but those scenes don't really do much for the film.
Nor do the updated musical numbers where the Oompa Loompas sing about each child character's comeuppance based on their dominant personality trait. While they're decidedly more upbeat than the first time around -- and obviously benefit from a bigger budget and better production values and thankfully omit the sing-along onscreen lyrics from the original -- they're not as hypnotically repetitive as their predecessors and the tacked on cultural references (ranging from "Psycho" to KISS, the Beatles and more) feel nothing more than just that.
And rather than having a bunch of little people painted that sickly orange playing the Oompa Loompas, Burton opted to photograph a fellow by the name of Deep Roy, shrink him down to an even smaller size and then duplicate him ad nauseam. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the original.
And that pretty much holds true for the overall film. While this effort has its moments -- including certain bits of dialogue and reactions by Depp, and various comedic moments such as one where a bunch of squirrel laborers take care of an intruder on their "assembly line" -- it just doesn't contain as much magic and wonder as the first (which really stood out in its time when such things weren't as commonplace as they are now, what with all of the computer horsepower on hand, etc. for making movies).
The one thing I really liked, however, was the beginning of the film. I'm not talking about the factory scenes and footage of Wonka (which, if I remember correctly, waited in the first film for the actual tour to enhance the mystique of who the kids were meeting and what they were getting into), but rather those featuring the title character at home (or, more accurately, his vertically challenged abode).
Following Depp from "Finding Neverland," Freddie Highmore is absolutely delightful as the title character who's such a good kid that he cares about his family more than anything else. There are some terrific grandson/grandfather scenes between him and David Kelly (in the Jack Albertson role) that give such moments a lot of heart.
Such scenes, coupled with Burton's standard touches of whimsy, production design and composer Danny Elfman's score work brilliantly, even if they're just a slight variation of the material from the first film. Unfortunately, they all but disappear once Charlie and his grandpa enter the factory. That's when we discover that the attractive candy shell contains some odd-tasting filling that, to quote the one kid, eventually comes off as pointless.
As the likes of Annasophia Robb ("Because of Winn-Dixie"), Julia Winter (making her debut), Jordan Fry (ditto) and Philip Wiegratz (ditto) go through their paces, Highmore's character is pretty much relegated to the background. Thus, all that made the early part of the film so engaging all but evaporates inside the factory scenes. Of course, it doesn't help that those of us familiar with the original know where the story is headed, but it all feels far a bit meaningless this time around.
When Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Wonka eventually get back to the family's house, things finally pick up again, but so much of the middle does feel like empty calories. In keeping with the candy analogies, I suppose that could be the point, but for me, the result just isn't as tasty as the first time around. While "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" has its moments, I prefer the look and taste of the non-enhanced, old-fashioned original.