The Oompa-Loompas are the best part of Roald Dahl's classic children's tale, whether you're talking about the original book, the 1971 movie or the new one. Add in whatever glitz and glamour CGI special effects can muster or a big Hollywood star, and it's still the little factory workers who steal the show with their crushingly sardonic songs about the awful kiddie visitors to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
While everything else about Tim Burton's high-tech version is jazzed up to a millennial degree, he actually tones down the Oompa-Loompas. Don't worry, their choreographed song and dance numbers are bizarre and wonderful '- especially a heavy metal number about the bad boy who shrinks himself in the TV '- but the Oompa-Loompas themselves are all copycat versions of the same actor (Deep Roy), who makes like Tracy Ullman and plays everything from a tribal chief to a secretary in a Chanel suit. It's the one digital trick that actually works.
The rest of the factory, as well as all the regular-sized actors, don't fare so well in the computer-generated universe. Johnny Depp, particularly, looks like a cartoon version of himself with orange airbrushed skin and a silly bobbed hairdo. When the camera gets too close and we can see the wrinkles around his eyes, it's enough to frighten small children. When he giggles like a little schoolgirl in this close-up, there will be a rush of crying preschoolers out the door. And when he cocks his head and looks constipated for one of the flashback scenes of Wonka's candy-less childhood at the hands of his demented dentist dad, the little ones will be followed by hordes of weeping parents, devastated that Depp and Burton have desecrated the memory of the beloved Gene Wilder, who played the part more as a wacky genius than a whacked-out one.
Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory wasn't exactly a feat of cinematic genius, but like the original colorless Wizard of Oz, the low-tech rendition had charm. It hardly mattered if the girl blowing up into a blueberry was kind of awkward. Sprucing up the story for the digital age '- so that the magical candy field and chocolate river are oh-so-realistic '- doesn't do much in the end for the believability factor. It just makes everything look more unreal. The giant factory looks like Japanese anime, and the people all have washed-out skin tones that make them look like caricatures.
The debate on whether or not newfangled technology makes this version better or worse than the original movie is a generational one. Anyone under 20 who was raised on sophisticated animation will probably like the new one better, but, it's worth noting, these are the same youngsters who keep Power Rangers on TV and make Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer a perennial holiday favorite. So that's not a sure thing. Bright colors and graphics can only keep kids busy for a little while.
Eventually, even they will become bogged down by the movie's pacing, as Burton allows too much time for his audience to stop and gawk at the visual pleasures. He dispatches the bad children one by one, so there's almost a countdown to when only Charlie and Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) will remain. And then, there's still more movie left. Willy Wonka, like the Peter Pan that Depp created for his last role in Finding Neverland, just can't let go. The movie keeps going and going, until it finds the last maudlin note that can be sounded. Dahl, ever the cynic, might have demanded his name be removed if he were still alive.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you crave chocolate, until the sickly sweet ending
Stars: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Roald Dahl, John August
Producers: Brad Grey, Richard D. Zanuck
Release date: July 15, 2005 nationwide
Distributor: Warner Bros.