American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
It’s kind of hard not to draw the comparison, given that Jackson’s Santa Barbara County rancho notorious is named Neverland, and Depp just came off an Oscar-nominated performance in the best picture-nominated "Finding Neverland," in which he played the inventor of Peter Pan, a figure to whom Jackson has often been likened -- and likened himself. In a further association with Pan, Depp’s "Neverland" co-star Freddie Highmore is again appearing opposite him, this time as young Charlie to the elder actor's Willy Wonka.
(There are also plenty of late-night-comic boners and groaners to be made involving the names Willy, Peter and Wonka in the context of Jackson's recent scandals, but I’ll leave those to you.)
Entertain, if you will, the following similarities:
* Both the Tim Burton film and the recent Michael Jackson trial involved reclusive, childlike eccentric millionaires, particularly idolized by kids, inviting young people over for special, personally guided tours behind the gates of their sprawling private Xanadus.
* The physical details of Depp's performance, including the pale face, semi-pageboy haircut, tightly drawn lips, high whispery voice, effeminate demeanor, and semi-formal candy-dandy wardrobe (tarted-up traditional hats, velvet jackets, glam gloves -- all with a fancified military and/or Victorian flavor), reminded many viewers of Jackson.
* Depp publicized his first Oscar-nominated performance, in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," by saying that he’d been inspired by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in fashioning his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. So, even though Depp has said he wasn’t consciously influenced by Michael Jackson, moviegoers were primed to look for resemblances to real-life figures in his sweet-and-sour, sugary/creepy Wonka performance.
At a pre-release press conference in the Bahamas (where he was shooting double sequels to “Pirates” -- with Keith Richards himself), Depp said of the Jackson comparisons: "Everyone is entitled to think what they want, even while being violently wrong."
And in a piece headlined “Citizen Cane,” Sean Smith of Newsweek wrote: “Depp also decided to make Wonka a perfectionist and a germ-a-phobe. As for his look, that flawless pale skin, perfect pageboy and slightly feminine air have had some people wondering whether Depp found inspiration in Michael Jackson. ‘That never crossed my mind,’ he says. ‘I never thought about it once, honestly. But it's interesting, people's perceptions.’ ”
You can take that at face value, or not.
* Too, there are the long-swirling stories of Jackson’s own physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his taskmaster father – some made by Jackson himself in the now infamous 2003 Martin Bashir documentary “Living With Michael Jackson,” and detailed by celeb columnist Roger Friedman and other muckrakers and unauthorized biographers, while strenuously denied by Katherine and Joseph Jackson, who has said only that he “whipped” the young boy – that may suggest some parallels to the relationship between Wonka and his dentist father in the film. That backstory was not in the book.
(By the way, I hear that Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane” is also based loosely on William Randolph Hearst. Shhhhhhhh.)
Personally, based on viewing the trailer, I thought I detected in Depp’s performance a dash not only of Michael Jackson, but also a taste of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Others (including RogerEbert.com readers who’ve sent us lots of e-mails) have seen hints of Carol Channing, Dana Carvey’s “SNL” character “The Church Lady,” Howard Hughes, Prince and Peter Noone, the lead singer of the mop-topped British Invasion pop band Herman’s Hermits.
One correspondent named Seth said he thought people who saw Jackson in Wonka had “the wrong end of the telescope up to their collective eye. It seems to me (and has for years) that Michael Jackson at some point decided, perhaps unconsciously, to become Willy Wonka. It should be no surprise then if Mr. Depp's performance evokes the character Michael Jackson has become.” (Roald Dahl’s book was published in 1964 and was made into the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder in 1971, which means Jackson himself was target-audience-age around the time they came out.)
Another reader, Michele Nichele of Glenview, Illinois, wrote that the crucial difference between Jackson and Wonka was obvious: “Michael Jackson loves kids; Willy Wonka hates them!”
For the record, here’s what some of the nation’s leading critics and entertainment reporters saw in Depp's performance -- independent of one another -- in articles written before the film entered general release on Friday, July 15, 2005:
“Johnny Depp may deny that he had Michael Jackson in mind when he created the look and feel of Willy Wonka, but moviegoers trust their eyes, and when they see Willy opening the doors of the factory to welcome the five little winners, they will be relieved that the kids brought along adult guardians. Depp's Wonka -- his dandy's clothes, his unnaturally pale face, his makeup and lipstick, his hat, his manner -- reminds me inescapably of Jackson (and, oddly, in a certain use of the teeth, chin and bobbed hairstyle, of Carol Burnett). The problem is not simply that Willy Wonka looks like Michael Jackson; it's that in an creepy way we're not sure of his motives.” -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times/RogerEbert.com
“In a role imagined by Dahl as ideal for the late British comedian Spike Milligan and played in 1971 by Gene Wilder, Depp, who channeled Keith Richards to great effect in "Pirates of the Caribbean,” here inescapably comes across as a close relation to Michael Jackson -- intentionally or not. The fastidious pseudo-Edwardian garb, lavender gloves, walking stick, immaculately bobbed hair, androgynous air, inhumanly bluish porcelain skin and childish intonations, along with his often snippy and literally dismissive attitude toward the kids he invites into his fabulous domain, create an oddness as likely to give pause as to enchant.” -- Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety
“Outfitted in black with top hat and formal long-tail coat, a pasty-white face and faux gullibility, Depp somewhat resembles Michael Jackson on a good day. He is a man deliberately disconnected from any reality so he can focus solely on childish delights. Through flashbacks, which cannot be found in Dahl's book, you learn that Willy's life is a complete reaction to an overly strict father (Christopher Lee), a candy-hating dentist.” -- Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter
“A fussy grotesque who makes Wilder's eccentric candy maker look as cozy as Mister Rogers, Depp's Willy gives off vibes as varied as Carol Channing and Michael Jackson.” -- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“[Depp’s Wonka is] He's a spaced-out, whey-faced child-man with saucer eyes: a blend of Carol Channing and Michael Jackson. He also has a king-sized chocolate chip on his shoulder.” -- David Edelstein, Slate.com
“The preternaturally smooth features and high-pitched voice -- as well as the fantasy kingdom into which selected children are invited -- may suggest Michael Jackson. Mr. Depp, in a recent interview, has dropped the name of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour. To me, the lilting, curiously accented voice sounded like an unholy mash-up of Mr. Rogers and Truman Capote, but really, who knows? The best thing about this Wonka, who tiptoes on the narrow boundary between whimsy and creepiness, is that he defies assimilation or explanation.” -- A.O. Scott, New York Times
"The role of the mock villain is taken by Willy Wonka himself, and, in the book, we heartily concur with the penalties that he inflicts; Violet does deserve to be inflated into a giant blueberry, the acidic little brat. But what if the perpetrator is Johnny Depp? And what if he dresses like Oscar Wilde, smiles like Michael Jackson, enunciates like Tootsie, and wears rubbery purple gloves to keep away the germs? Where does moral tutelage end and sadistic farce begin?" -- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
“Depp’s decision to play Wonka as a children’s-show host ("like Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Green Jeans") merged with the visage of Vogue editor Anna Wintour (though I’d say he looks more like Faye Dunaway by way of Michael Jackson) is one of his rare missteps. Further distorted by Burton’s insistence that Willy "can’t stand children," this Howard Hughes of confectioners is a Wonka wholly antithetical to the jovial bullshit artist whom Dahl described.” -- Bret Michel, Boston Phoenix
“In fact, this is the actor's second screen role in a row for which he's brought out his inner Michael Jackson ("Finding Neverland" was the first). It's funny, richly imaginative and creepy all at once, and the subtly masked look Depp has assumed for the role -- perfectly squared teeth, pupil-widening contacts, pasty white face makeup -- complements the unnerving, immature personality perfectly.” -- Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News
“I peeked at some advance stories that suggested the actor is doing a clever satire on Michael Jackson -- the skin; the wispy voice; the leading of children through the Neverland-like atmosphere of the Day-Glo candy factory; the primal fear of an abusive daddy (in this case, Brit horror-movie legend Christopher Lee). But that just doesn’t track; Depp is more original in his creation here than he was as a brazenly swashbuckling Keith Richards in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Unlike the King of Pop, Depp’s loopy lord of lollipops is fully an adult, a crafty autodidact who’s caught in a paradox: He recoils from the slightest touch of the children who most appreciate his sugary creations. Depp speaks nothing like Jackson; he invents a new sort of hipster dippiness, dripping sarcasm while chattering breathlessly through the open mouth of a rictus smile, telling the kids that they’re ‘kinda starting to bum me out’ unless they ‘keep on truckin’ ‘ with his long-striding tour of the chocolate factory…. A damaged child grown into a man who maintains elaborate control of his surroundings, this Willy is less Michael Jackson-creepy than a chipper capitalist, for whom profits equal comfort, which equals creative freedom.” -- Ken Tucker, New York Magazine
“Highmore doesn't stand a chance next to Johnny Depp, who plays Wonka as a glassy, tittering, socially retarded, sexually ambiguous man-child -- Michael Jackson without the sleepovers. It's an off-putting performance, mannered and unconvincing, and it robs Wonka of the acid that makes him so entertaining in the book.” -- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
“Johnny Depp's Michael Jackson-inspired, soft-voiced, porcelain-skinned, man-child portrayal of Wonka also departs from how Dahl describes the character: ‘Covering his chin, there was a small neat pointed black beard -- a goatee. . . . He was like a squirrel with the quickness of his movements, like a quick clever old squirrel from the park. . . . His voice was high and flutey.’” -- Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune
“Depp's Wonka is scary as heck, but not necessarily because he seems like a child molester. Some critics and smartypants onlookers have noted that the character bears a creepy and unfortunate resemblance to Michael Jackson, but to me, he's much more like Phil Spector, a wacko soft-spoken prince who spends his days pacing his prisonlike palace. Depp's performance isn't bad; it's just so carefully pruned, like a sharply tailored topiary bush, that it feels more like character design than a performance.” -- Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com
“Depp makes Wonka a hip guy with a Valley Girl-ish personality, slightly effeminate with a high-pitched voice. Depp's Wonka runs into glass doors and cracks jokes; he's a metrosexual.” -- Andrew Guy, Jr., Houston Chronicle
“As Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's film of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Johnny Depp wears his hair in a bob that looks like he might have stolen it from Julie Christie in 1966, and he has milky translucent skin that gives him the appearance of a corpse made entirely of Muenster cheese. When he smiles, flashing teeth that are white and pearly enough to terrify Tony Robbins, it's less an invitation than a threat, as if his entire mouth were filled with fangs. Wearing a top hat and red velvet coat, speaking in a light effeminate voice of extreme fussiness, he looks and acts like a 19th-century vampire who is halfway through a sex change.” -- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
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