Johnny Depp would seem the surest bet to replace Gene Wilder in any “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” remake. This is the same actor who turned a Disney theme park ride — “Pirates of the Caribbean” — into a critically praised box office smash.
So why does his Willy Wonka remind us of Michael Jackson lurking under a Prince Valiant wig? In dramatically departing from Mr. Wilder’s take on Roald Dahl’s story, Mr. Depp provides “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with its sole sour note. Subtract Mr. Depp’s calculated quirks and “Charlie” is a delightful companion to the original.
Tim Burton, the man-child behind “Beetlejuice” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” couldn’t be any more at home with Mr. Dahl’s text. He treats us to just the sort of candy-colored confection we expect from him, and his command of the story’s whimsical moments is wickedly assured.
He also doesn’t shy from the tale’s darker shadings.
Yet the film nudges the focus from Charlie to Willy Wonka’s redemption, leaving us to root for a maladjusted Mr. Rogers-type with severe daddy issues. It’s like sucking on bitter hard candy waiting for a sweet center that never materializes.
Mr. Burton has made no secret of the fact that he holds the 1971 feature in far less regard than the rest of us, but his “Chocolate Factory” tracks rather closely with that film’s plot points.
Young Charlie (Freddie Highmore) lives with his extended family in a cramped and drafty hovel that literally pitches to one side. Once a year, the boy receives a Wonka bar for his birthday from his cash-strapped parents (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor). Just before his big day this year, the news breaks that Willy Wonka is opening up his chocolate factory to five lucky children. The only way in, though, is to find a golden ticket tucked within the wrapper of a Wonka bar.
The first four winners are a rogues’ gallery of childhood horrors, from the gluttonous Augustus (Philip Wiegratz) to the spoiled rotten Veruca Salt (Julia Winter).
All are brilliantly cast, and their winning moments are delectably comic morsels.
Willy Wonka himself guides the five through his automated factory complex, a tour abounding in marvels of visual imagination to dazzle young and old alike.
It should also do wonders for concession sales — and dentists.
The Oompa Loompas, those mischievous workers forever etched in our hearts from the first film, are still hard at work stirring the chocolate. This time, they’re all played by diminutive actor Deep Roy. FX wizards multiply the actor to fill out chorus lines and production lines as needed, a feat that’s sparkling in its presentation and helpful in selling a dozen or so witty sight gags.
The new “Chocolate Factory” splits from the original chiefly by adding back story on Willy Wonka’s childhood and the Oompa Loompas’ origins. The former lends some depth to Mr. Depp’s labored performance. The latter shatters the film’s sugary spell.
The original “Wonka,” when we rub the nostalgia from our eyes, is far from perfect. It’s a product of its kitschy era, for one, and only some of its musical numbers have aged well. Yet its heart thump-thumped just right in sneaking its way into pop culture lore.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” exceeds the original in some expected ways — like its eye-popping sets and visual effects and Danny Elfman’s witty score — yet it’s unlikely to snare a space alongside the original in our culture’s collective heart.
TITLE: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
RATING: PG (Mild language and peculiar situations)
CREDITS: Directed by Tim Burton. Written by John August from the Roald Dahl novel. Music by Danny Elfman
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
WEB SITE: https://chocolatefactorymovie.warnerbros.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS