For anyone born before say, 1980, the following words are enough to strike fear and giggles into the hearts of lads and lasses everywhere: "There's no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There's no knowing where we're rowing. Or which way the river's flowing. Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is a hurricane a blowing?" This is the chant that a deranged-looking Gene Wilder uttered as his magic gondola sailed down the chocolate river in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It is a film that has delighted and spooked children for more than 30 years.
Hop into my gondola, Memphians, and I'll tell you a little about a guy named Wonka.
He owns a big candy factory, and nobody's been in it for 15 years. And yet, it's been producing candy all this while. But how, if nobody comes in or out, does the candy get made? Little Charlie Bucket (Finding Neverland's wonderful Freddie Highmore) would like to know. He's a poor boy living on the outskirts of the Wonka factory in a strange, dilapidated house where his four ancient grandparents sleep in one large bed (two at the foot and two at the head). One day, after years of silence, Wonka announces to the world that he is putting five "golden tickets" into his delicious Wonka Bars, and the children who get them will be treated to a tour of the Wonka factory and vie for a chance to win a special prize at the end of the visit.
Needless to say, Charlie gets one of the tickets, as do a quartet of prepubescent horrors: fat and gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled rich kid Veruca Salt, competitive gum-smacker Violet Beauregarde, and the video-game-obsessed brat Mike Teavee. Wonka (played by Johnny Depp) doesn't like these kids. He has unique ways of expressing disdain for each. And, in fact, each of the kids leaves the tour early, picked off by their own excesses. (Augustus falls into the chocolate river, Violet becomes a giant blueberry, etc.) We know throughout the movie that Charlie will make it all the way based on his kindness and manners. But what is the special prize?
Thirty-four years after the original film, director Tim Burton has reinvented the Wonka legend (originating in the 1964 children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl) with several more flights of fancy through dark territory. Not that the original film wasn't dark; in fact, one of its chiefest pleasures was its creepiness. But unlike the storybook whimsy of the first film, the new Factory (named after the book and not the earlier film) is more comfortable with the funny and with the not-so-funny. It's more human. And yet, its centerpiece - Wonka himself - isn't quite human at all.
While Charlie is more fleshed out and real than the moppet of the first film, Wonka himself is a bizarre amalgam of Michael Jackson and Oscar Wilde - only more androgynous than Michael and dandier than Oscar (imagine that!). Whereas Wilder's Wonka was mischievously wise, Depp's is neurotic. He has family issues - he can't bring himself to say "parent" - from a troubled childhood with an overbearing dentist father (played by Burton idol Christopher Lee). Wonka is not merely whimsical here. He is weird.
Some may consider Depp's creation a miscalculation. But what kind of person could create a factory of such imagination and craziness and not be somehow crazy and imaginary in the process? The factory is a marvel - very much like the one of the earlier film at first but more expansive and magical as it goes along. There are special effects now that were undreamt in 1971, and they are put to enchanting use. (There is a violent squirrel attack that looks as real as any squirrel attack I have endured.)
What exactly Dahl's book and this film promotes in terms of childhood virtues is elusive. Is it moderate appreciation of candy? Respect for imagination? This is unclear. Crystal clear however is this: Quibble as you may, this is the most imaginative and delightful film so far this summer. It is a feast for the eyes and ears. (The Oompa Loompas, Wonka's trusty and diminutive servants, all played by Deep Roy, engage in dazzling production numbers, each themed around the exit of a bratty child. The horn section really soars.) And the chemistry between the strange Wonka and the responsible Charlie is touching and, at times, heartbreaking. This is Burton's most complete and rewarding film in years, and certainly in a year full of Fantastic Fours and Bewitcheds, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory succeeds as the most reverential and enjoyable remake.
See it. - Bo List