Johnny Depp as the Wonky Chocolatier: The Curious Implications of The Michael Jackson Effect

It's been an at once quite busy & somehow quiet since StinkyLu's last posting. Apologies -- the Lu's really trying to get at least one post a week on the board...

So, to the most important issue first: Tim Burton's Charlie & The Chocolate Factory was brilliant. You may have heard a whole batch of naysaying voices weigh in with their grudging praise or terrorized compliments or ambivalent dismissals. You may have contributed your own voice to that strange chorus. Fans of the book admit this flick's closer than the 1971 version, but wail about the invented backstory for Willy Wonka. Fans of the 1971 movie acknowledge that this one's good but (a) nowhere as magical or (b) far too weird. And if StinkyLulu hears one more "clever" riff on "too many sweets" or "sour candy" -- well, may Christopher Lee become your dentist too...

And then there's Johnny Depp...people just love him or hate him for his surrogation of the Wonky Chocolatier. Roger Ebert (among others) thought Depp's characterization evoked (& possibly found inspiration in) the spectre of Michael Jackson, assessing it as a misguided choice that subsequently came close to derailing the film. Obviously, the claim that Depp Jacksonified Wonka uses Michael Jackson, in a kind of cultural shorthand, to signal freak/monster with a hefty "taint" of perversity (especially where boychildren, like "Charlie" of the film's title, are concerned). More subtly, however, the argument that Depp Jacksonified Wonka alleges two crimes at once. On the one hand, it's an accusation that Depp's characterization perpetrated a kind of perverted violence upon a beloved childhood icon; on the other, it's an insinuation that Depp's characterization itself somehow transformed that beloved childhood icon into a perpetrator.

It's an interesting rebuke to Depp's work in this film. Notably, it arrives as Depp's riding his highest wave of critical appreciation & mere months since the actor's second career Oscar nomination for his portrayal of J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. As Barrie, Depp adopted one of his least idiosyncratic performance styles. The actor channelled his exceptional sweetness, playfulness & charisma through his extraordinary physical prettiness to create an embraceable portrait of a man seemingly "innocent" of adulthood, most especially adult sexuality. (For StinkyLulu, these connections between J.M. Barrie & Michael Jackson were much more vivid and much more creepy.)

Curiously, the criticism of Depp's idiosyncracy as Wonka almost inevitably references his work as Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribeean, where his idiosyncratically "swishy swashbuckler" seemed to singlehandedly revive the whole idea of a pirate movie. Depp's Sparrow was, for StinkyLulu, a thrilling example of a male actor toying with an excess of gender as he crafted his anti-hero as a gender outlaw as well. (Depp's work in that film became additionally impressive for its instigation of physical and audible reactions in the boychildren sitting to StinkyLu's left on opening day. The older kid who was about 12 was squirming, saying "ew" and "eyechh," nearly any time Depp's Sparrow appeared on the screen; in contrast, his younger brother -- maybe 10 years old? -- was enthralled, giggling and cheering and staring in slack-jawed amazement.)

There's something curious, then, in the revulsion throbbing in the idea that Depp Jacksonified Wonka. If you actually think about it, Depp's Wonka -- while undeniably and incredibly strange -- is nowhere near as perverse as his other recent, and more celebrated roles. Rather, it seems to StinkyLulu that Depp's Wonka is best appreciated as part of a particular Depp tradition, begun in some of the actor's earlier mysterious, titular roles (Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood), each a delicately passionate creature misunderstood & maligned by the incriminating normalcy of the world surrounding him.

And placing Michael Jackson as an interpretive overlay on Depp's Wonka crucially misunderstands exteriorized difference as a signal of danger. This is a mistake StinkyLulu hears running all through the evocations of Gene Wilder's "charm" and "whimsy" in the 1971 film. People. Get real. Reflect honestly on your experience of Wilder's Wonka. Didn't Wilder's Wonka make you at least as nervous, as least as tense, as Depp's -- at least some of the time? StinkyLu suspects that much of Wilder's freaky weirdo manipulation as Wonka is forgiven (& forgotten) in the magical transformation (some would say revelation) of Wilder's Wonka in the "everlasting gobstopper" moment -- where Peter Ostrum's Charlie returns the secret candy & where Wilder's Wonka sheds his forbiddingly strange exterior to become an unabashedly kind man whose madness was (to a whim) methodical. For StinkyLulu, ever since the days of being a wee little Stinky, this revelation cheapened the character of Wonka, making him less trustworthy (not more) for his elaborate manipulations and partial truths. Depp's Wonka has no revelatory transformation & remains as defiantly irreal even as Charlie (here, the luminous Freddie Highmore) guides him toward fuller personhood through a reaffirmation of the importance of family ties.

So, while this more recent Chocolate Factory movie did at times make StinkyLulu long for the more familiar one, Depp's Wonka consistently reminded Lu of the often frightening but most excellent delight of finding a whole 'nother Chocolate Factory -- just as cool, just as scary, just as thrilling... And to be alert, lovely reader, to the curious implications of all the allegations that Depp Jacksonified Wonka...

P.S. Check back for more on the racial oompa-loomplications & thoughts on StinkyLulu's favorite character -- then and now -- Mike Teevee.

1 comment:

Afrofuturist said...

Just saw it last night and appreciated your wise thoughts and deconstruction of the whole MJ tag. The film is amazing, and the world awaits your thoughts on the Oompa-Loompas