Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (PG)

There are some partnerships that are made in movie heaven. At least, they appear to be.

In that case the creative triumvirate of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and the fantastical genius of the late Roald Dahl must have had movie bosses at Warners dribbling into their cornflakes; the possibilities were endless.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I must report that this re-imagining of Dahl’s story never quite hits the heights. Once again, the deft touch that Burton displayed in past hits like Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, and which went astray in Planet of the Apes and Big Fish, is singularly lacking. And once again what should have been a superior remake emerges as entertaining but distinctly average. It should have been a collision of two immense imaginations – Burton’s and Dahl’s. Instead the ambitions of the former fail to match the brilliance of the latter.

The detail of the story is well-trod. Charlie Bucket (British child sensation Freddie Highmore) lives a pauper’s life in a ramshackle house with his parents and four aged grandparents, all of whom share a giant bed.

The house is on the edge of a town which is dominated by the giant, quasi-gothic factory of enigmatic chocolateer Willy Wonka. One day, quite unexpectedly, Wonka announces that he has secreted a limited number of golden tickets within the millions of chocolate bars he sends around the world. Whoever finds them will be granted a tour of his factory and given the prize of all prizes.

As the world goes crazy for the golden tickets a motley band of brattish children find the tickets. Charlie, against all odds, gets the last one. With his Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) he steps inside the factory to meet the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is another of Burton’s magnificently realised fantasies. In terms of style and atmosphere is aspires to join other entries in his phantasmagorical canon. The problem, however, is that it is slow, somewhat empty and utterly lacking the manic glee of the original film starring Gene Wilder.

Wonka, as played by a pallid, androgynous Depp, is uncomfortably close to Michael Jackson. In that respect (and unlike his barnstorming performance in Pirates of the Caribbean – a riff on Keith Richards) he underplays to the point of barely performing at all, leaving audiences to make up their own minds as to his various psychological scars.

Burton points awkwardly to an unhappy childhood with a strict Dickensian father (effortlessly played by the wonderful Christopher Lee in an extended cameo) but fails to follow it up. Instead the lion’s share of the action is devoted to the various horrid children who accompany Charlie on the tour.

Where Burton succeeds is in the various characterisations – all, admittedly, supplied by Dahl in his 1964 novel. The odious kids, from obese chocoholic Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) to spoiled rich girl Veruca Salt (Julia Winter), meet with sticky fates appropriate to their characters. And as each is dispatched, the Oompa Loompas serenade their departure with a catchy song, much to Wonka’s delight.

It’s the detail that saves this film. Burton has used CGI to create his Oompa Loompas, with the inscrutable Deep Roy, a Kenyan actor and stuntman, providing the look and feel of the secret army that runs Wonka’s factory.

The casting (save, perhaps fatally, for Depp) is solid, particularly with the children and young Highmore is acceptably good, kind-hearted and appropriately poor (though rather too rosy cheeked) as Charlie. And the gallery of traditional Burton grotesques is ably filled.

Like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, this is a film from a great artist that is missing a vital something. Given that it revolves around Wonka and Depp, arguably Burton’s greatest collaborator, is possibly miscast, then what’s missing is the film’s heart.

And with no heart, how can it possibly survive?

Star rating: ***

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