The most marked point of Dahl's book is the idea of candy. The plot is supposedly a child's dream come true: entrance into the greatest candy factory in the world, a garden made of candy and so on and so forth. I was never enamoured of the idea, mostly because I don't like hard candy. If it had been the greatest cake factory in all the world . . .
In any case, the earlier version focuses on satisfying that dream. There is a plot: all the other children are horrible and Charlie is wonderful (I think it is interesting that the greedy children are disposed of first; the more complicated and aggressive Veronica is disposed of third and surprisingly enough, the violent, TV-corrupted yet daring Mike TV is saved for last. In my version, I would turn Charlie into a corporate wonder who decides to utilize Veronica's pushiness and Mike's brashness by making them vice presidents, but then, I'm somewhat less cruel than Dahl). The earlier movie sacrifices the family aspect of the story (no dad) to emphasize Charlie's intrinsic integrity.
The newer version correctly places Charlie's family loyalty at the center of the tale, adding the correlating (but non-book inspired) story of Wonka's dentist father. Unfortunately, this gives the movie a lopsided feel. The beginning parts of the film are excellent, and the boy who plays Charlie (Freddie Highmore) is an actor to keep your eye on. (He plays Peter in Finding Neverland.) The story of Wonka's dentist father is pure Burton, with a hint of Dahl. Unfortunately, after all that, the factory portions seem, well, rather pointless. There is no joie de vivre in Burton's version, none of the loony Monty Python-like joke-making of the 1971 version. Oddly enough, it isn't even as bizarre as a Burton film. (See Beetlejuice.)
In fact, it's really a movie about Freddie Highmore as Charlie and Johnny Dep as Willy Wonka. Which actually makes it worth the theatre price. Freddie Highmore is a talented child who completely sidesteps the sweet-innocence persona and remains likable. Thank goodness. In the 2004 Five Children and It (which is, more or less, the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe combined with E. Nesbit), Highmore portrays a sturdy brat who keeps the audience's sympathy--just barely but he does it. A little older and he would have made a magnificent Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Johnny Dep is well-worth watching in just about anything and is becoming progressively more and more well-worth watching. There are few actors in this world who could pull off the Willy Wonka that Johnny Dep depicts while keeping the audience invested in Wonka's fate. This Wonka is not the quixotic Gene Wilder (whose Wonka was much closer to the book version), this Wonka is J.M. Barrie, except that Dep's J.M. Barrie from Finding Neverland was played more like the quixotic Gene Wilder (with a much too real accent; so Dep is good, but good grief, he didn't have to be that good!). Dep's Wonka is the true boy-who-never-grew-up. Dep has captured the ageless, emotionally stunted and altogether unsettling persona which unnerves people about Michael Jackson (possibly why the connection between Dep's performance and the singer has been drawn). Dep's mastery of this character must be appreciated. It just doesn't have much to do with candy.
My assessment is that Burton took on a script that he had little interest in, a setting he had even less interest in, but the bare bones of an idea that he had a great deal of interest in. From that, he created a showcase for the impressive talents of Highmore and Dep. Since, as I mentioned, I never cared for the book, I don't consider this a loss. I don't regret seeing the movie in the theatre, and I will watch it again on DVD.