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AT THE MOVIES: Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (**)

It was too good to be true: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to adapt the Road Dahl children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into a movie. Burton seemed the perfect maestro to handle the dark yet whimsical material and Depp as Willy Wonka? A revelation. How could so much right go so horribly wrong?

There are some films that are so permanently and efficiently imbedded in our psyches they need not ever be remade. Even if Burton and co. weren’t going to remake Mel Stuart’s 1971 film, most of us moviegoers have a hard time forgetting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, even with the goofy songs most people think ruined an otherwise great film. The fundamental truth remains – how can one compete with Gene Wilder in any of the roles he’s ever played let alone his Willy Wonka?

No, it can’t be done, not even with the very talented Depp acting his heart out. Given that the Wilder experience is out, one counts on the usual flair Burton has with the visuals to carry the project through. Unfortunately, the Burton world hopeful movie-goers imagined is a lot better than the world Burton delivers.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory unfolds much the way you’d expect – impoverished but pure of heart Charlie Bucket aches to win one of the golden tickets the elusive Willy Wonka has inserted in otherwise ordinary Wonka bars. There are only five and all but one have already been dispersed to a loathsome crew of obnoxious children, each of whom represents the poisons modern society has wreaked on our children.

They are no more interesting or no worse than the children from the 1971 film – Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) made a more diabolical brat than the all-out screaming brat from the original, Julie Dawn Cole. Augustus Gloop’s (Phillip Wiegratz) only crime seems to be that he eats too much (poor bastard). The overly competitive Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) will be known forever as the girl who turns into a giant blueberry and the monster incarnate Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry) the TV addict from the earlier film has now morphed into a violent gamer, probably destined to shoot up a school somewhere.

Compared to all of these, poor but sweet Charlie is a winner in both films. We know and therefore feel for Charlie far more in Willy Wonka because we see him break the rules by drinking the fizzy water and then make the choice to give back the Everlasting Gobstopper. In “Charlie,” as realized by the wonderful Freddie Highmore, we don’t get to know Charlie that much at all and therefore have nothing but his sincere stare to go by.

For some reason, screenwriter John August, working with Burton, came up with the lame idea of having the film be more about Willy Wonka than Charlie by creating a ridiculous back story for Wonka to explain why he is the way he is. His father, a dentist (Christopher Lee), forbade him from eating candy which, in turn, gave rise to a freak who doesn’t go out in public, wears gloves yet still has a bright smile with nice teeth.

Wonka is supposed to be a mythic figure. If he’s sinister or bizarre it ought to be decided by the children who view the film, not cooked up for effect by unimaginative filmmakers. Wonka is the monster who must learn how to love and be loved. Charlie must care take him. What an awful curse for the poor kid. At least in Wonka you had the feeling Charlie was going to a happy place when he’s offered the chocolate factory. In Charlie, nothing could be more depressing than the idea of Charlie having to spend any more time with Wonka.

Essentially, Burton managed to wring out of a magical story any sense of wonder, any sense of joy and any sense that the good are rewarded in this world. What remains is a strangely passive/aggressive need to deconstruct the fable and make it something evil and ugly.

There are joys to be had, however, amid the sickening disappointments. The Oompa Loompas are hilarious, the costumes and art direction vivid and sumptuous. Even Depp, who has taken such a hit from critics for his performance has his moments of brilliance. When he says, “Everything here is edible, even the people. But that’s called cannibalism and it’s frowned upon in society” you can’t help but laugh. His mean Wonka is funny in the same way Wilder’s was; both were irritated by the children and even a little frightened, and both made their distaste known.Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened at number one over the weekend. It has been among the must-see films of the year. In the end it won’t matter that it’s disappointing – it’s as good a reason as any for parents to spend money entertaining their kids. And who knows, with this update, perhaps it might open a dialogue for kids (even if they are all white kids) and parents to discuss the evils of lax parenting.

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