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A 'Charlie' that's not sugar-coated

July 15, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to confections, Tim Burton has confessed, his preference is "dark, bitter chocolate." Which is not exactly a surprise. The director's visionary, phantasmagorical version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is equally dark and, if not exactly bitter, unapologetically, relentlessly strange. Burton's gifts ensure you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll be happy with what you're seeing.

Though it is much closer to the plot of Roald Dahl's celebrated book than the 1971 Gene Wilder-starring "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," "Charlie" paradoxically comes off as more Burton than Dahl. It's got, in an odd way, the feeling of the filmmaker's spiritual autobiography rather than the sensibility of the original story.

In theory, this Burton-Dahl teaming, with the added bonus of Burton's gifted soul mate Johnny Depp in the Wilder role, sounded as unassailable as Laurel and Hardy. The director, whose resume includes "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands" and whose creepy PG-13 "Batman Returns" left parents pleading for mercy, seemed the ideal match for a writer whom one critic described as having "a taste for cruelty, rudeness to adults and the comic grotesque."

Although Dahl is all that and more, the reason his irresistible 1964 novel has sold 13 million copies in 32 languages is that, grotesqueries aside, its overall tone is completely genial, even affable. This ability to mix opposites, to be welcoming as well as weird, is Dahl's gift as a writer, an ability that is simply outside Burton's sensibility.

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," interestingly enough, appears to know this. Great pains are taken with elements of the film's casting, and very particular changes are made to the book's plot by screenwriter John August. It's all done with an eye to warming up what is otherwise a distant piece of work, as chilly and reserved as the novel's story of five fortunate children who get to hang out with "the greatest inventor of chocolates that there has ever been" is cheerfully accessible.

All this is really a shame because Burton, working with production designer Alex McDowell and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, displays a breathtaking visual imagination. Each image in the film -- including references to "2001," "Psycho" and the choreography of Busby Berkeley -- is presented with remarkable precision, polished and buffed to the highest of sheens.

But from its opening images, which include chocolate-making machinery that brings instruments of torture to mind and factory chimneys more sinister than even Dickens imagined, "Charlie" can't help but go to the dark side. With the great horror actor Christopher Lee (whose autobiography is titled "Tall, Dark and Gruesome") in a key supporting role, this is a film that can make even chocolate seem inescapably evil.

Which is why it's such a good thing that young Freddie Highmore, Depp's winning costar in "Finding Neverland," is cast as young Charlie Bucket, "the luckiest boy in the entire world." Highmore is the most winning young actor imaginable, and his ability to dominate the early parts of the film makes us miss him all the more when his role lessens.

Though Charlie is poor as the dickens, he is lucky because he lives with both his parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor) and all four of his grandparents, including grizzled Grandpa Joe ("Waking Ned Devine's" David Kelly), who worked for Willy Wonka once upon a time. That was before rampant industrial sabotage caused the man to close his plant and then reopen it at full capacity without employing a single human soul.

Suddenly, in a news flash that literally startles the world (it's that kind of a story), Willy Wonka announces the contest to end all contests: The five lucky young people who find a golden ticket inside their Wonka chocolate bars will get to tour that super-secret factory and be eligible to win "the most something something of any something that's ever been."

Naturally, Charlie finds one of the tickets (there wouldn't be much of a film if he didn't), as do four other children, each of whom represents a type of adolescent evil that Dahl, who had five children of his own, wanted to discourage in the most serious way. They are compulsive consumer Augustus Gloop, whose hobby is eating; snotty rich kid Veruca Salt, as spoiled as the day is long; competitive Violet Beauregarde, who considers herself the No. 1 gum chewer in the world; and video fiend Mike Teavee, whose original passion for television has turned into one for video games.

Once these kids gather at the factory, Charlie perforce fades into the background and the film becomes the property of Depp's Willy Wonka, a creature of hollow and unnatural glee who is odd even by the standards of previous Depp-Burton collaborations.

A fussy grotesque who makes Wilder's eccentric candy maker look as cozy as Mister Rogers, Depp's Willy gives off vibes as varied as Carol Channing and Michael Jackson.

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