So who are the Oompa-Loompas, anyway? At best, they're just scabs, the union-busting replacement workers brought in by Willy Wonka after he canned his previous staff for giving away trade secrets to competitors. But they're more like unpaid slave labor, "liberated" from their native land and plopped into Wonka's factory, where they keep the chocolate flowing and serve as guinea pigs for experiments in candy that disrupts the space-time continuum. The perversely joyless Charlie And The Chocolate Factory video game might as well be called Charlie And The Chocolate Plantation, because it turns you into an Oompa-Loompa slave-driver, ordering around the little buggers as they bow to the sound of your stern patrician clap. And lording over the whole operation is the imperious Wonka, a dictatorial man-child whose whimsical musings on candy mask a deeper obsession with the bottom line.
A more entertaining game might have opened with Charlie eating cabbage soup with his bedridden grandparents, but Charlie And The Chocolate Factory skips right to the factory tour after the boy finds his miraculous "golden ticket." As Charlie, you're set to work as soon as Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river and gets stuck in a pipe, but you soon discover that Augustus isn't the only thing gumming up a system that clearly isn't up to code. Rather than drinking in the factory's chocolatey delights, you play foreman to the Oompa-Loompas, who each have specialized roles: Harvester Oompa-Loompas cut down hard-to-reach candy trees with buzzsaws, Welder Oompa-Loompas repair leaks in the equipment, and an Electrician Oompa-Loompa... well, you get the idea. Pesky little Wonkabots and Rollerbots pose problems on occasion, but the levels are really about keeping the trains running on time. And nothing spells F-U-N like maintaining a high level of corporate efficiency.
Beyond the gameplay: Because they already have solid, ready-made storylines, licensed game adaptations of popular movies generally excel at anything that doesn't have to do with gameplay, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is no exception. Guided along by a surprisingly palatable original score, the story segments mimic an illustrated storybook, which is a conceptually daring break from the norm. Then again, any time spent away from actually playing the game is an oasis.
Worth playing for: The Oompa-Loompas look adorable with their little welding masks and harvesting sacks, and they're so excited to work for you that their enthusiasm sometimes triggers one of the game's many glitches. If you're bored while collecting candy, try getting them so juiced that they just spin around in circles indefinitely.
Frustration sets in when: The game is aimed at children, but it includes several missions that are hard to puzzle out, even with hints from Grandpa Joe, who used to work at the factory. To wit: In order to clog up the steaming vents that are keeping Augustus stuck in the pipe, you have to lure Wonkabots into traps with Jelly Beanstalk Candy and turn them into vineballs, which can then be rolled into the vents. How intuitive.
Final judgment: It may be the worst movie-to-game adaptation of the summer, but Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is at least mesmerizingly bad, and there's something to be said for that.