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Colorful characters, sets abound in ‘Chocolate Factory’

Howie Nave
Johnny Depp stars as Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
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Without a doubt, one our most gifted actors is Johnny Depp. He has the versatility of a De Niro or a Brando, able to change his characters, never duplicating roles. One moment he is a sad creation of one man’s vision, like a modern day Pinocchio (1990’s “Edward Scissorhands”), and the next a pirate who defies any gender (2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”).

In short, Johnny Depp is anything but predictable when it comes to his craft. So, it’s no surprise, then, that master filmmaker Tim Burton (who also directed him in “Edward Scissorhands”) asked Depp to return under his guidance, this time playing the role of Willy Wonka in his latest children’s fantasy, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

I’m sure those who are familiar with 1971’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” starring Gene Wilder (and directed by Mel Stuart) will see a drastic difference in Depp’s portrayal of the leading character. While Wilder was more the focal point around the man who manufactured chocolate, Tim Burton’s version centers more around the lucky kid, Charlie Bucket (played by Freddie Highmore), and his poor but loving family of wonderful characters. His family consists of eclectic members, my favorite being that of Grandpa Joe. Played by the brilliantly funny David Kelly, whom you may remember from 1998’s little gem “Waking Ned Devine,” he is almost a cartoon character come to life.

When Johnny Depp first appears on screen as Willy Wonka, it’s quite an animated Wonka you’ll behold. With a look that reminded me of a cross between Michael Jackson and George Harrison from the Beatles’ movie “Help!” Depp seems a bit over-the-top and detached at first, before slowly building a chemistry with Charlie.

I hesitate to call this a remake, but rather a completely different interpretation closer to Roald Dahl’s book than the 1971 version. The musical numbers were a nice addition, as were the wide variety of odd characters, especially the Oompa-Loompas (played in colorful overtones by Deep Roy) who run the chocolate empire for Wonka. Oh, yeah, Burton’s musician of choice, Danny Elfman, delivers in a huge way the motion picture’s soundtrack.

Johnny Depp, to his credit, makes Wonka his own and there is no likeness to the Wilder role. And in that role Depp is like a ringmaster here, directing the multitude of cast members where the children are as diverse as the candy factory itself.

Wonka has hidden five golden tickets in his candy bars and those who find them are treated to a personalized tour of his chocolate factory. Besides Charlie’s lucky ticket, there’s an odd assortment of lucky (well, soon not-to-be) winners from different backgrounds.

Some parents may find a few of the scenes intense for the little ones, but ultimately the story overall is a slice of what some of these children are experiencing in real life, dealing with nasty kids like the ones represented here, and also the unexpected. It is, in fact, the kids who snag most of the screen time, and their acting is above par. They are as diverse in character as the candy bars that Willy has to offer. When it comes to stealing a scene, never compete with kids or animals.

True to form, one of my favorite scenes involves an incredible array of well-choreographed squirrels that do what they do best: sort nuts into their various storage outlets on cue.

Tim Burton excels at creating visions that are startling to the imagination and he was smart to not rely on CGI effects but rather real sets that are elaborate with every painstaking detail evident here. Always bizarre and mesmerizing in execution, Tim Burton knows how to set up his canvas before painting a story. If there’s an IMAX theater in your future, definitely see this in that format. It is incredible.

– Howie Nave is the host/emcee/manager of The Improv at Harveys Tuesday through Sunday nights. You can hear him on seven radio stations every Friday morning reviewing movies in northern California and Nevada, including KRLT in Lake Tahoe and KOZZ out of Reno. Watch him every Saturday and Sunday on Tahoe’s KMTN TV doing movie and video reviews.

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