Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A dark and ambivalent version.

"Everything here is eatable. I'm eatable, but that, my children, is called cannibalism and it is frowned upon in most societies." So says Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka in the new Tim Burton film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That statement is an emblem for a dark and ambivalent version of the Roald Dahl novel, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and its original film version (1971) starring Gene Wilder as Wonka. Is the film funny or cynical, eccentric or malevolent? Both probably. I'm still thinking about the answer because, while Wilder certainly showed genial and grim sides of Wonka, his sides were clear and amusing. Depp is mostly grim.

Part putative pedophile Michael Jackson, shameless shock rocker Marilyn Manson, and redoubtable recluse Howard Hughes, Depp's Willy seems caught in combat with all three and no clear personality the winner. Director Burton, of course, savors the misanthropic side of Willy with nary a sympathetic character except little Charlie and his Dickensian poor but virtuous family. Depp does delightful disdain of the children, who are mostly, with the exception of Charlie, stereotypes of fat, overindulged, malicious, and fawning spoiled brats.

Burton catches the current fascination with the dark childhoods of leading characters, such as Christopher Nolan's lonely Batman. The film seems to be saved from Burton's uncertain tone by the ending, which reaffirms family life, even for Willy, who can barely utter the words family or parents through most of the film. Burton emphasizes, then, the cliched solution to misery and poverty and avoids, in deference to the novel, what might have been a promising premise, namely that not all children are redeemable and not all families can count on love to get them through tough times.

Willy warns the visiting families not to touch the squirrels' nuts, another signal of the nutty film's ambivalent tone and point of view. I just wish Depp had portrayed Willy with a clearer understanding of the wit and wiliness of Wonka.