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Friday, Sept. 16, 2005
WHACKO WILLY WONKA
Candy-colored dream fades
It seems only natural that director Tim Burton's latest is about a kid in a candy factory; what better metaphor is there for Burton's career? He's the eternal fan-boy who now gets to indulge his childhood obsessions of B-grade monster movies and kitsch on a grand scale with Hollywood-size budgets.
With "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Burton again returns to Johnny Depp, the star who has graced most of Burton's best flicks -- "Ed Wood," "Sleepy Hollow," "Edward Scissorhands" -- and the forthcoming "Corpse Bride."
Time and time again, Burton turns to Depp to serve as the embodiment of his quirky, geeky aesthetic, while also sexing it up with his charisma, cool and looks. Depp sells weird by being cute, a proposition that feels oh-so-true when you try reversing it.
While "Chocolate Factory" may be Burton's best film in several years -- coming after the disappointing "Big Fish" and the atrocious "Planet of the Apes" remake -- it certainly won't top any of the other Burton-Depp collaborations. The original 1970s film adaptation of Roald Dahl's strange little children's book, starring Gene Wilder, was surreal enough, so it was hard to see what Burton could bring to it other than more expensive special effects. Oh, and Johnny Depp.
Burton's film opens snappily enough, a crisp ride through the inner workings of the Wonka chocolate factory as production lines of scary spiderlike robots wrap the world famous Wonka Bars and include five golden tickets in the batch. The lucky recipients of those tickets will be allowed to meet the reclusive Mr. Willy Wonka and enjoy a tour of his candy factory, which has been closed to the public for years.
Our protagonist is a boy named Charlie Bucket, who's played by Freddie Highmore, Depp's young costar in "Neverland."
Charlie is an urchin who lives in a house that looks like it was hit by a gale and never recovered. All four of his grandparents live in the same bed, and his schmuck of a dad (Noah Taylor) works at a toothpaste factory. His parents can only afford to buy one chocolate bar a year, but Charlie and his grandad Joe (David Kelly) keep hoping they'll win that ticket.
Burton excels in the first half-hour, creating an appropriately fairy-tale atmosphere with the help of production designer Alex McDowell. There's also an absurd sense of humor that produces plenty of throwaway gags, things like Wonka's unmeltable ice cream, or the Prince of Pondicherry's palace made entirely of chocolate.
One by one we meet the winners of Wonka's Golden Tickets, and they're a group of singularly loathsome little brats: insatiable glutton Augustus Gloop, pampered princess Veruca Salt, spiteful over-achiever Violet Beauregarde and obnoxious 'tude tween Mike Teavee. Charlie is the final winner, and, exceptionally, a good kid.
You can't blame the movie for its timing, and yet its impossible to watch "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," where an eccentric and reclusive adult invites young children to his secret abode of theme-park rides and candy, and not think of Michael Jackson and Neverland. This isn't helped by Depp's dandyish look as Wonka, with a fringe haircut (under a black top hat, red velvet jacket, and way too much makeup. Depp's performance, mixing an awkward usage of '50s hipster slang with a high-pitched Pee-Wee Herman laugh and a distracted manner, only enhances the disturbing, Whacko Jacko undertones.
Once inside Wonka's factory, the film drags, as the plot mostly involves everyone walking around and looking at things (until the children meet their chocolately just deserts.) The sequences with Wonka's pygmy workers, the Oompaloompas, are done as retro-'60s musical numbers shot in candy-colored kitsch and are entirely unappealing. (Though a friend's 4-year-old daughter rates the Oompas at the top of her hit parade . . . ) At one point Mike Teavee sneers, "Why is everything here totally pointless?" and the viewer will be inclined to agree.