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The candy man can 

Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is sweetly sinister

By Felicia Feaster The original film version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory treads a fine line between a morality tale for kiddies and outright sadism.

The clunky 1971 cult film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which starred Gene Wilder as a candy factory owner, was a children's movie in the Grimm Brothers tradition. Willy Wonka cautioned that children ought to stifle their greed and mind their manners if they didn't want to end up as obese blueberries or clogs in the Wonka factory's production line.

Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory matches that film's tone of whimsy laced with rat poison, but in a vastly more entertaining retelling of the Dahlian classic in which five children find golden tickets in Wonka's chocolate bars and win a tour of his phantasmagorical candy factory.

Burton uses computer graphics - including oodles of Oompa-Loompas crafted from one stone-faced actor - without bogging down the story in technological effects. In the end, his souped-up production feels like a gloriously cinematic rendering of the insane excess of children's fiction.

Marrying extreme set design and sublime casting (including Helena Bonham Carter and Noah Taylor as the parents of child hero Charlie Bucket), Burton's film showcases his usual interest in gothic effects and the original Willy Wonka's psychedelia.

Though Wonka's factory facade is Metropolis gloomy, the inside is a nearly pornographic riot of fruity colors and Dionysian candy abundance. At various times the factory's complex, gooey operations suggest some Fantastic Voyage into the human body, a digestive fantasy with intestinal rivers of chocolate oozing characters from one outrageous scene to the next.

Sporting a mahogany wig and the sugary-scary tones of Dana Carvey's church lady, an exceedingly camp Johnny Depp portrays Willy Wonka as a cross between Michael Jackson in scary pancake makeup and some überhip member of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Wearing goggle glasses and a velvet frock coat, he greets his child visitors with the creaky, hippy-dippy welcome, "Good morning, star shine. The earth says hello."

In Burton's hands, the Wonka factory is a confectionary Garden of Eden where lust for sweets proves to be the kiddies' downfall, except for Charlie (Freddie Highmore) who knows how to control his sugar jones.

Like the 1971 version, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an extended Alice in Wonderland fall down the rabbit hole into a land of trippy munchkins, assorted acid-trip effects and meta-references to the artificial conventions of the movie musical. (Veruca Salt's prim daddy [James Fox] wonders after yet another Oompah-Loompa dance number, "I do say, it all seemed rather rehearsed.")

Riffing on the often frumpy, low-budget "groovy" effects of Willy Wonka, Burton's film gets just as much inspiration from the surreal character of any number of film styles, from '30s musicals to film noir, from Stanley Kubrick to Busby Berkeley.

Recalling the uniform suburbs spread out like a tree skirt at the base of the gothic castle in Edward Scissorhands, all village roads in Charlie appear to lead to Wonkaville. As in Scissorhands, Burton creates a snow globe-enclosed vision of the world, this time a self-consciously Dickensian one where Tiny Tim is represented by the sweet-hearted, generous Charlie who lives in a crookedy house in the shadow of the Wonka factory.

As he demonstrated in Finding Neverland, all Highmore has to do is direct his earnest, delicate little face and rabbity eyes at the camera to melt hearts. His relationship with the mega-weird Wonka has echoes of the actors' symbiotic relationship in Finding Neverland, with Depp again playing Peter Pan to Highmore's precociously serious lost boy.

Charlie becomes emblematic of a kid whose principles and integrity arise from his poverty, like some Depression-era urchin whose very presence chastises the other children - indulged rugrats so familiar from contemporary parenting. Highmore is flesh and blood, but the brats like Augustus Gloop and Violet Beauregarde, shipped in from far-flung Germany or the generic Atlanta suburbs, have a spooky waxen sheen and eyes the color of Windex.

The beauty of this Charlie is the infusion of Wonka's psychological backstory to suggest oodles of rationale for his candy obsession. Depp's manic Wonka is a kind of Howard Hughes paranoid, shuttered up in his factory to avoid contact with real life's inevitable disappointments.

Wonka experiences noirish flashbacks involving a dentist father (played by horror film star Christopher Lee), which suggests Wonka's wackiness has a tragic side, and manages to endow Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with something close to genuine, inventive artfulness amid its hallucinatory verve.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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