Culture

Why Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka Crushed Johnny Depp's Model

Johnny Depp Willy Wonka

Gene Wilder left behind so many marvelous films.

“Blazing Saddles.” “The Producers.” “Young Frankenstein.” They’re all classics, unless you worship at the altar of safe spaces and trigger warnings.

One film still stands above that cinematic trinity: 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Wilder, who died Monday at the age of 83, delivered the kind of performance you wish the Academy could go back in time to hand him some sort of trophy for.

His wondrous chocolatier is funny, whimsical and more than a little frightening. He’s the center of a silly tale of bratty kids and big dreams. He’s always got our attention despite the hummable songs and those curious Oompa Loompas.

But one man thought it wasn’t good enough.

Director Tim Burton remade the classic tale in 2005 via “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” This reporter interviewed Burton as part of a press junket prior to the film’s production. When asked why he was remaking a classic film, the frizzy-haired auteur fixed me with a penetrating look.

“Have you seen it?” he said with contempt.

The Wonka fan in me stayed silent. It wasn’t the setting for a movie debate. And, frankly, I was curious to see what Burton could bring to the story. Burton remains a master visualist. What could he uncork with a Wonka reboot?

Burton’s film ended up sticking more closely to Roald Dahl’s source material. It snared Johnny Depp in the signature role. Could you select a better star to give Wilder a run for his money?

Burton’s “Chocolate Factory” brimmed with beautiful scenery and a terrific score from Danny Elfman. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the film … save Depp.

He’s creepy. Offputting. He lacks the sinister element Wilder brought to the character, and the unending charisma. Critics compared him to Michael Jackson, and hardly in a flattering way.

Our best chameleon took a swing at Wilder’s Wonka legacy … and missed.

“Charlie” can still be found on home video, pay cable outlets and elsewhere. Your kids will enjoy it, and you might consider picking up the soundtrack, too.

It won’t displace Wilder’s “Wonka,” though. That will keep on playing on every outlet imaginable. You’ll see it years from now at outdoor summer festivals. That’s where pop culture treasures are played over and again.

Wilder ensured that with his bravura turn. We all have that Golden Ticket, and few of us are willing to let it go.