BRANDO BEING DEAD, it falls to his friend Johnny Depp to be the great on-screen eccentric of our age. Each new role is like a whoopee cushion intended to consternate and amuse. Caribbean pirate as Keith Richards? Fine, works for me. Delusional writer in a bathrobe plagued by his own fictions? OK. CIA killer disguised as a three-armed tourist? I can go with that. But in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which opens Friday, July 15, at the Metro and other theaters), he may be pushing things just a bit too far.
Imagine Mr. Rogers on ecstasy, his face plastered in pale pancake makeup like a '70s glam-rock star, with a voice pitched up to the register of a 13-year-old Valley Girl, a Howard Hughes–style magnate freakishly removed from his humble, unclean customers, and fond of ending each sentence with the lilting, indifferent interrogative "'Kay?" That's kind of what Depp is doing—dressed like a Victorian-era pimp, hair in a Prince Valiant pageboy cut (or Betty Page, for that matter), purple latex gloves on his fingers, and prone to regular saucer-eyed freak-outs for which he apologizes, "I'm sorry, I was having a flashback." He looks like a doll you might win by knocking over some milk bottles at a carnival booth.
In other words, it's a performance so overdesigned and indigestible that the other performers can hardly breathe in the movie. No wonder poor Charlie (the wonderful Freddie Highmore, one of Depp's J.M. Barrie boys in Finding Neverland) is so relieved to be back with his squalid family in their squalid, loving hovel with its leaking, old-horse's-back roof, crouched in the shadow of the ominous candy factory. Just to look at Wonka, let alone be in his presence, is almost enough to cause insulin shock.
Yet Charlie, having found the golden ticket, is intent on touring Wonka's mysterious factory, along with four horrid, more privileged children and their guardians. And, per the 1964 Roald Dahl book or the 1971 Gene Wilder movie (now just a psychedelic '60s remnant, no classic), he must eventually find the heart within the fey sugar tycoon by proving his devotion to his parents (Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter) and grandfather (David Kelly, from Waking Ned Devine). Why Wonka offers the tour is unclear; as with a lot of children's literature, plotting isn't strictly logical. Charlie correctly notes, "Candy doesn't have to have a point."
I'm not sure that Burton really intends this new Factory to have a point, either. Yes, the virtues of love and family are duly embraced—to the extent Burton is willing to embrace anything. (Burton is well known for bad-mouthing his parents, and Wonka, too, recoils when a child tries to hug him.) But I think kids will be perfectly happy at his movie's surface level. Unlike the dreadful and offensive The Cat in the Hat, it's a kid-lit adaptation that doesn't degrade its source text or talk down to children. And the mini–musical numbers, employing CG Oompa Loompas (all played by the same actor, with Dahl's original lyrics set to Danny Elfman's music) are fun. I quite enjoyed the movie's industrial use of squirrels. But, like a lot of recent Burton efforts, it won't grow on you. It's no everlasting gobstopper.
One reason for this, apart from Wonka's inscrutable foil wrapping, is that Charlie doesn't really do anything (quite unlike the Shark Boys and Lava Girls of today). Reality TV and Survivor have changed the way we look at passively polite Charlie as he competes with Veruca Salt and the other spoiled brats. Burton uses trash-TV spectacle and Columbine-era references to suggest how Charlie is the last decent kid left on Earth. (Highmore could basically spend his remaining preadolescent career, before becoming Christian Bale, in the Dickens "Please, sir, may I have some more?" school of drama.) But if Survivor creator Mark Burnett were calling the shots here, Charlie would be the first guy voted off the island. No wonder Wonka takes pity—they're both products of Burton's nostalgia for old values, old movies, and old actors (Christopher Lee plays Wonka's estranged dentist dad, even though he could be Depp's grandfather).
Perhaps overidentifying with Wonka as a misunderstood genius/pariah, Burton also scorns the modern cookie-cutter suburbs and families of Charlie's young rivals. (Of course, Dahl was no sweetheart himself, one reason children revere him.) Yet we're the greedy consumers of his, and Wonka's, mass-produced pleasures. Burton still hasn't outgrown his tortured-teen contempt. Some parents in the audience may laugh when Wonka gags at pronouncing the very word "parents." Others will detect the long aftertaste of Burton's bile.