The Candy Man

Johnny Depp fits perfectly into Tim Burton's kid-friendly world of whimsy.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 9, 2005

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Sweet spot: Willy gives a tour of his Neverland-style factory.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Includes: Several making-of featurettes, including a bio of Roald Dahl, and interactive games.
You'll Like It If You Like: Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Oliver Twist, Johnny Depp.

Playing Willy Wonka, of all people, Johnny Depp looks like Vogue editor Anna Wintour and talks like a cross between Michael Jackson, Mister Rogers and a bitchy drag queen. "I'm Violet Beauregarde!" a little girl chipperly informs him. "Oh," comes the deadpan reply. "I don't care."

Make that "kyeer" in Depp's insanely baroque patois, as the former 21 Jump Street heartthrob chalks up another Brechtian performance so stylized and surreal it makes his off-the-wall Keith Richards pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean look like a triumph of naturalistic method acting.

You've gotta hand it to him--Depp's carved out a niche like no other actor, and his brilliance is that he creates a real and memorable person behind the lipstick, pancake makeup, pageboy haircut and sculpted eyebrows of this not-your-father's-Willy-Wonka.

That's partly because he and director Tim Burton--his frequent partner in weirdness--reimagine Willy as a case of arrested development, traumatized by his mean dentist dad (vividly embodied by horror-movie legend Christopher Lee) who calls lollipops "cavities on a stick," sneers at chocolate and mercilessly tosses little Willy's Halloween candy in the fire.

Everyone's got an Oprahesque back-story now, so even Willy Wonka joins Burton's parade of lost souls and beautiful losers. No matter what the topic of his movies ostensibly is, Burton always makes his films about the same thing: the visionary loner--the outsider scorned by society with a poetic, creative soul hidden behind a forbidding or unprepossessing facade.

A playboy in a mask, a bowtied nerd, a snaggly-haired misfit with scissorhands, a deluded but earnest movie director, an androgynous candy-maker--no matter how different they seem, Burton's heroes all turn out to be introverted geniuses and secret artists. Depp, who's both childlike and similar to Brando and Dean, has become his perfect alter ego--fey yet firm, a chameleon composed of contradictions, whims, bizarre flights of fancy and inexplicably changing moods.

He's ideal for Burton's Willy Wonka world--his most kid-friendly excursion into whimsy since Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Innocent and longing for a father, Willy wants to be paternal himself, handing over his candy business to a young person in his own image. To find his heir, he runs a contest and lets five kids tour his Neverland-style factory in a process of elimination that'll decide the winner. Four of them self-destruct, leaving pure-hearted Charlie to be the son Willy never had.

Burton's inner child is so well developed it's almost outer. He seems like the kind of guy who's more kidlike now than when he was a kid, and his vision brings out more darkness in Roald Dahl's tart novel than did the kinder and gentler 1971 movie musical (in which Gene Wilder played a mildly abrasive yet relatively warm and fuzzy Willy).

Classic as that candy-man-can '70s version may be, this one makes it much clearer that Dahl's real mentor (and Burton's too) is Dickens. Like Oliver Twist or Pip in Great Expectations, Charlie's a plucky but unsentimental kid whose goodness helps him rise above poverty and malice. When his poor but happy family welcomes Willy at the end of the movie, the scene comes right out of the end of A Christmas Carol.

Like Dickens, Burton mixes sentimentality with class conflict with a been-around-the-block attitude. At the same time he brings onboard some of Dahl's less savory traits--misogyny (one girl blows up grotesquely large and round; the other gets sucked into a smelly, fishy hole) and racism (the German kid is a fat, greedy pig; the Americans are a self-promoter and a TV/video game addict; and Burton doesn't help matters by casting a diminutive Indian as all the servile Oompa-Loompas).

Yet these characters ultimately become background cartoons against the doppelgangers at the story's heart: Charlie, who stays cheerful and moral in poverty, and Willy, who (like Michael Jackson) stays frozen in childhood as if to keep reliving it until he gets it right.


"What do you expect in this crazy city?" snarls a rich old curmudgeon when he can't turn on his lights. That's pretty much the attitude of this vividly apocalyptic 1978 B-movie, in which a citywide power failure becomes a metaphor (and a setting) for the social anarchy of New York City in the '70s.

Following up on the city's real-life 1977 blackout--and real-life bankruptcy and breakdown of the same decade--the film tracks residents of one apartment building as they're menaced by four escaped prisoners who are shockingly amoral and nihilistic. The escapees run around the building stealing money, burning Picassos and turning off respirators while the residents cower in fear amid their candles and flimsy door locks.

Focusing on everyday events like a wedding, a pregnancy and an elevator ride, the filmmakers vividly evoke a sense of big-city peril that feels much larger than one power failure. At the same time, they marshal the conventions of the disaster movie--one of the great '70s movie genres--by putting all their people in one place they can't escape (like the ship in The Poseidon Adventure or the burning building in The Towering Inferno). This sets in motion a bunch of interlocking personal stories, with appearances by some moldy old movie stars like Ray Milland and June Allyson.

With the raw urgency of a B-movie, the tone is startlingly brutal and apocalyptic. Real damage is done, and there's not much salvation or happy-ending redemption. It's a cheesy movie, with plenty of bad acting and hack writing, but it has a vividness and immediacy that bigger-budget movies often lack. If nothing else, it plants you right inside New York in its crumbling 1970s: "What are you, kidding?" yells a cab driver at a guy who wants him to reduce his fare for "police business." "The city is broke. They can't even pay for a cup of coffee!" B

Includes: Cast biographies, production stills.

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