Screens Sweet revenge

Like the best chocolate, 'Factory' is dark

In a world of children's entertainment that generally alternates between condescension, sappiness, smarminess, and barely disguised product placement, it's almost sufficient cause for celebration when a movie has the guts to present kids with some of life's harsher realities, even if it is a remake. Not to say that children need Nietzsche, but an all-peaches-and-cream diet isn't particularly healthy.

Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, that pioneer of childhood nastiness.

A wave of literary darkness has crashed across the juvenile section. After Potter, Snicket, and crew, the time is ripe for a visit from Willy Wonka, that pioneer of childhood nastiness. The especially subversive aspect of Wonka's tale is that unlike the gloom-encrusted worlds of those more recent mythologies, this tale covers its venom with a bright candy shell.

And who better to concoct that confection than Tim Burton, whose eye-popping gifts have made such potentially frightening films as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands into genuine family fare? With a splendid vision, Burton lives up to his resume, understanding when and how to taint the sugary goodies with a bitter aftertaste.

Think of it as Brat Camp with candy: Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, the owner of a candy factory where children enter as gluttonous miscreants and leave as Type II diabetics.

Viewers may be leery at first, as the credits sequence takes us through a candy-bar conveyor belt where computer graphics barely try to look real. But the gears shift effectively when humans enter the frame: Burton sells the illusion of magnificent sets, from an Indian palace made entirely of chocolate to a luminous, pink seahorse-boat that navigates catacombing canals of flowing cocoa.

In fact, the things that look most unreal are sometimes undeniably flesh and blood. When we meet the corpulent child Augustus Gloop, his chubby cheeks glow with an artificial, Pixar-ish sheen; one suspects that Burton had effects artists give the actor (and some of his costars) a digital touch-up job to exaggerate their weird noxiousness.

Johnny Depp is plastic-looking himself, but happily, pulls off the look better than the ads suggest. This Wonka is weird to be sure, visibly unsettled by the company of humans - and in particular, uppity children - but Depp is enjoyably devilish as he allows the repulsive kids touring his factory to get themselves into trouble.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Dir. Tim Burton; writ. Roald Dahl (book), John August; feat. Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Missi Pyle, James Fox, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee (PG)
Plot-wise, it's hard to disguise the story's simple structure: Reclusive candy-maker announces a contest in which five children will get to tour his factory. The winners emerge; the tour begins, and one-by-one they are undone by flaws in their character. After each "accident," Wonka's Oompa-Loompas play Greek chorus with a song. It's a narrative arc that plays out better in a book than in a film (slasher films aside), and small children may get restless as the movie approaches two hours. But Burton and company do right by author Roald Dahl's mischief; each sequence has a vibe all its own, down to the changing styles of the Oompa tunes that sum them up.

If most of the golden-ticket winners present a toxic view of humanity, the one for whom the movie is named certainly balances them. Charlie (played by Depp's Finding Neverland costar Freddie Highmore) projects innocence, wonder, and goodwill without resorting to the cheesy clichés with which child actors usually strive to charm us. He's a more normal character than Pee Wee, Edward Scissorhands, and Burton's other innocent heroes; fortunately, that doesn't keep Burton from making a deliciously strange film.

By John DeFore

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