So fellow critic Mark Sanchez has already put Tim Burton’s 2007 adaptation of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” up against its theatrical predecessor, and declared Burton’s version victorious. But how does the new Burton-Depp vehicle stack up against the Burton-Depp vehicle that came before it – 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”? Clearly, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp make a great team; together, they create delightfully dark and twisted fare. Burton has proved himself a maestro of adaptation, taking the classics and making them slightly sinister (watch out for 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.”) Both films were hailed by critics, and word on the street (by which I mean Ebert & Roeper) is that “Todd” might even earn Depp his third Oscar nod. Both feature gloomy London settings and Helena Bonham Carter in ragamuffin costumes, but which creepy collaboration wins out?
The Defending Champion
The fifth in a long line of Burton-Depp collaborations, 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was critically lauded for sticking more closely to the classic Roald Dahl children’s book than did its 1971 predecessor, Mel Stuart’s “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Having watched the original countless times growing up, I had high hopes for the remake – and was slightly disappointed. The set-up seemed perfect: the masters of mayhem at the helm with an eerily sinister children’s book as material. The result was a let down, never quite achieving the ominous vibe of the original and just seeming tame by comparison. Perhaps Burton’s remake is more kid-friendly; what was so great about Stuart’s 1971 version was the truly spooky performance by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. With Wilder in the role, Wonka was an eccentric-bordering-on-deranged candy maker who could turn on a moment’s notice, all in the name of teaching greedy children a lesson. When Wilder sentenced kids to their apparent deaths-by-candy, we really didn’t know if they were ever coming back. With Depp as Wonka, the same cannot be said. Depp made him into a mildly-kooky-bordering-on-pathetic manchild with a pageboy haircut. When he sent blueberry shaped Violet Beauregard off to the juicing room to be squeezed, we had no doubt that she would return safe and sound. Even the oompa loompa-drenched musical numbers were weak by comparison; after Burton CGI-ed them to death, they weren’t nearly as trippy as in Stuart’s film. Contrary to “Sweeney Todd,” this Burton-Depp venture wasn’t quite over the top enough.
Despite its gruesome subject matter, “Sweeney Todd” is a sweet surprise. Everything from the art direction to the musical numbers is just right, and under Burton’s direction, Depp does “tortured” better than any other actor currently out there. Not only do we believe his pain, we actually empathize with him and are slightly satisfied every time he slits another throat in pursuit of the man who wronged him. The songs feel natural, not forced, despite Bonham Carter’s penchant for mumbling, and the sheer melodramatic ghastliness of it all is good fun (from the unidentified substance churning out of the meat grinder to the moment where an asylum full of lunatics are unleashed upon their abusive warden).
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” though probably enjoyable for younger generations who have not seen the original, is a bit of a let down. Depp commendably tries out a departure from his usual twisted characters, instead creating a Willy Wonka who is lonely, vulnerable, and childlike. The result is not nearly as satisfying as his dark and demented Todd. This Burton-Depp project is unusually lightweight, having little lasting impact, much like the sugary confections it revolves around – pleasing for a moment, but ultimately unsubstantial.
The winner, hands down, is “Sweeney Todd.” Maybe it’s because Burton and Depp had free reign with a film that’s clearly aimed at adults rather than families, or maybe they just finally found material that’s dark enough for them. Either way, it’s about time these guys get the Oscars they so richly deserve.