Charlie And The Chocolate Factory review

It looks nice. Johnny Depp is terrific. The first hour is fantastic. You just know there's a 'but' coming. But we'll deal with that later. First, the whipple-scrumptious fudgemallow delights ( there are more than a few).

When balloons bearing chocolate bars float down during the opening credits, you wonder if this is the perfect marriage of filmmaker and material - Tim Burton's blend of wide-eyed whimsy and Gothic grandeur with the boundless imagination and wit of Roald Dahl's 1964 novel. Quickly drawn is a typically Burton-esque netherworld - not quite ours, not quite another's. A land of heightened reality, where the titular sweetie sweatshop towers over the grey-terraced town like Vincent Price's grand mansion over crinkle-cut suburbia in Edward Scissorhands.

Doors and windows askew stands a shonky, wind-blasted cottage, somehow holding itself together. In it, a family as resilient as the architecture. Mum Helena Bonham Carter, dad Noah Taylor, grandparents huddled together in a sagging double-bed, it's the poor-on-the-outside, oh lawks, rich-on-the-inside Buckets. Freddie Highmore is perfect as Charlie, the focus of their barely flagging hopes for the future. The wet-eyed lip-quiverer in the wildly overpraised Finding Neverland, Highmore has here evolved into a confident, charismatic little lead. Haley Joel Osment ability, without the preternatural what's-going-on-behind-those-eyes scariness. "Nothing's impossible, Charlie," says his mad grandma, and you will it to be true. Particularly when you meet the other kids. The porcine German Augustus; stuck-up aristo Veruca; me-first brat Violet; TV smartass Mike. Thinking about it, for Charlie not to look sweet next to this lot, he'd have to be played by Joe Pesci ("You wanna piece of me, Wonka?").

Introductions over, it's into the factory. And here is where - for good and ill - the stars take over. Depp and... the production design. Burton loves his sets. He likes to take you somewhere else; to transport the audience. Wonka's wonderland sees Burton untap the day-glo dreamscape of Dahl's mind: from the chocolate waterfall of the edible meadow ("Everything in this room is eatable. Even I'm eatable, but that is called cannibalism, my dear children") to the sealed antiseptic space of the TV transporter room. It is, visually, hugely satisfying (assuming you can overlook the odd splodge of obvious CGI).

Then there's Depp, Burton's other object of affection, working with him for the fourth time. Wonka's entrance has the twisted surrealism of a Gilbert and George art installation and the actor, aspromised, plays the eccentric chocolatier as the bastard offspring of Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson. It's a bizarre, funny, cooly brilliant turn...

So now, the `but'. Behind the glittering façade of sets and star, there's not much here. Everything else is marginalised. Even Charlie's relationship with Grandpa Joe (David Kelly), a key factor in the emotional heft of the 1971 Gene Wilder flick, is smothered by whizz-bang sugar shots and Depp's oddball posturing.

Though largely faithful to the novel, the script tries to break out of the story's strict structure and lend Wonka some heart by flashing back to his childhood days dealing with his martinet orthodontist dad (Christopher Lee). The backstory is charming but superfluous and proves frustrating, given the minimal interplay between the children. There's not enough time devoted to making these archetypes - greedy, spoilt, driven and techie - truly hissable after their initially impressive arrival. In the book (and Wilder's Wonka), you can't wait for them to get what's coming to them. Past Child Two here, it begins to feel rather perfunctory. Deep Roy - playing every Oompa Loompa, thanks to digital gimmickry - pops up for a choreographed (quite irritating) singsong, Wonka clears his throat a bit and it's on we go to another lesson in How To Be A Good Person.

There's still much to enjoy and children, in particular, will delight in the Chocolate Factory's gaudy glory and promise of sweet treats. But sweetness doesn't always bring satisfaction. And as much goodwill as Burton has earned - he's an honest, visionary filmmaker whose affection for the material bathes every frame - the finale feels strained; reaching. A cinematic confection of empty, empty calories.

Spectacular, if shallow. Burton can't quite sustain interest beyond Depp's delicious performance and the candy-coated visuals, but kids will eat it up.


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