Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Directed by Tim Burton

Written by John August from the book by Roald Dahl

Starring Johnny Depp


I can think of only two American directors whose body of work is so distinctive, so unlike that of anyone else, and has in it so much that is worthwhile, that they deserve to be called by that hallowed old term 'auteur.' As unalike as can be, one is Quentin Tarantino, the other is Tim Burton. Burton's early stretch of three brilliant films in succession: "Beetlejuice," "Batman" (the first, the one with Jack Nicholson as the Joker) and "Edward Scissorhands" stamp his work as uniquely witty, compelling and resonant. Over the years since, Burton has gone through some dry spells - "Ed Wood," "Sleepy Hollow," "Mars Attacks" - but even those, and particularly "Mars Attacks," had moments of genius.

Now he's gone back to Roald Dahl's novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," moved the Mel Stuart-Gene Wilder 1971 version ("Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") out of the way, and with his longtime artistic muse Johnny Depp, with whom he's done some of his best work, as the mysterious factory owner Willy Wonka, has given us a deliciously bizarre, visually beautiful and sophisticated version of the book. The story begins with the factory closing its gates to its former workers - among them Charlie's grandpa Joe (David Kelly in a moving and witty performance) - but still turning out the very best chocolate confections in the world. How does Willy keep going without his workers?

One day he announces that he will allow five children in for a day's visit; the five will find a ticket placed in a chocolate bar. As you will recall, four of the children are about as obnoxious as it is possible to be; one of Dahl's strengths was names, so there are Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee, Augustus Gloop (always my favorite name) and Veruca Salt. Only Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) is sweet, unselfish, and thoughtful.

When the five are admitted, they find that Willy now uses little Oompa-Loompas (all played by the androgynous Deep Roy, who dances and moves through the factory as though in a Busby Berkeley musical) as his workforce. One by one the bad children are picked off to fates appropriate to their characters, leaving only Charlie - and us - as the victors.

But what happens inside the factory is the best of Burton's achievement here. Depp shows us a Willy who is not all sweetness; he has a malicious streak that comes out with children he dislikes. Unfortunately screenwriter John August has given Willy a backstory about his own childhood to explain it; something that is not only not in the book but needlessly warps and twists his character. But there are many pleasures here: on the tour the dozens - hundreds - of identical Oompa-Loompas dance and sing in wittily choreographed setpieces to music by Danny Elfman; and the sequence in which obnoxious Mike Teavee tries to steal from the (real) squirrels who are shelling nuts for the candy is particularly good.

It's not often that a production designer can be appreciated for his or her work; usually it's kept in the background, subsumed within the context of the film. But here designer Alex McDowell has produced an exterior - the town - that is part Dickens and part Metropolis, with its dark factory dominating the skyline but looking down at Charlie's crooked, fairy-tale family home - a hovel, really, in which Charlie, his mom and dad (Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor) and both sets of grandparents survive on cabbage soup and share one quilt for warmth.

Dahl wrote a fairy tale that is part Hans Christian Andersen and part Preston Sturges; Tim Burton honors both of them.