You plunk down your $10.50, hand your ticket over, plop yourself into a plush velvet seat and empty the contents of a half-dozen salt packets into a popcorn tub. It's the middle of summer, the perfect time to escape with the help of a mindless, multimillion-dollar Hollywood remake. The lights go down and the THX screen briefly terrorizes your inner-ear canals.
Then something very strange happens. An A-list star comes onscreen, mimicking one of society's most controversial figures. Is it funny? Is it some sort of social commentary? Is it even intentional?
As the world begins to feast its eyes on Tim Burton's high-profile remake "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," rumors that Johnny Depp is "doing" Michael Jackson are growing with more intensity than the taste of an Everlasting Gobstopper.
"No, not really," Depp responded recently to a question about whether his Wonka was patterned after anyone famous, uni-gloved or nasally impaired. "It was more like the idea of kiddie-show hosts in general ... I was watching a lot of 'Captain Kangaroo' and some old game-show hosts from the '70s like Chuck Woolery and Wink Martindale."
While Depp may deny the Jackson comparisons, audiences continue to discover a new Wonka more likely to moonwalk than to tell the kids he'll be "back in two and two." The fact that Depp has admitted in the past to cribbing mannerisms from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards (for "Pirates of the Caribbean" character Jack Sparrow) is also helping the rumor multiply as fast as a CGI army of Oompa Loompas.
The new Wonka is an enigmatic, middle-aged man with a knack for expressing himself in rhyme. He possesses wealth, fame, success and a public indulgence for his eccentricities, until his paranoia and insecurities cause him to build an elaborate private residence. Dressed like a member of nobility, his pale skin and peculiar facial features belie a disturbing psychological history encompassing parental abuse, numerous phobias and a Peter Pan complex that takes the term to a whole new level. He speaks with a high voice, surrounds himself with animals and has a penchant for amusement-park aesthetics. Oh yes, he also invites little kids to come live with him.
Admittedly, many of the master chocolatier's character traits originate from the 1964 Roald Dahl book and/or original 1971 film version, both made long before the King of Pop ascended to his throne. Whether Depp is channeling Jacko or not is a subject for debate, but one thing is certain: he sure isn't channeling Gene Wilder.
"The kid in me was sort of saying, 'Gene Wilder was so brilliant in the '70s version,' " the star said of his desire to make the new Wonka unlike the one from three decades ago. "There was only one thing to do: step way outside of that, go and make some very radical turns and stay away from that."
Mission accomplished. Although Wilder has publicly questioned the motivations for the remake, the lack of similarities between Wonkas would seem to render his opinion as irrelevant as that of the third actress from the right opening candy bars in Veruca Salt's factory. Has Depp performed the most high-profile Michael Jackson cover since Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal"? Does his performance remind audiences of this year's "trial of the century" too much to allow them to enjoy their escapism? Will Johnny Depp turn his next dramatic performance into a thinly veiled impersonation of Fred Durst?
In response, perhaps Depp would quote the statement Willy Wonka once made to Veruca: "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams."
Now, it's up to the audience to decide whether admission to Depp's latest dream really is a golden ticket.
Check out everything we've got on "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
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