Roald Dahl's chocolate coated wonder
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is directed by Mel Stuart and is based on the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Dahl served as the film's screenwriter, and Gene Wilder stars as the titular Willy Wonka. The film also stars Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Gunter Meisner, and Diana Sowle.
Like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a children's film that is likely to be considered an integral part of one's childhood, having developed such a massive reputation over the years that it's another film that I like to assume everyone has seen at least once. It's a fantasy based musical that's all over the place: being charming, funny, and straight-up weird. But being weird is never an excuse to dismiss a film as bad, something that Willy Wonka certainly is not. The movie, however, is weird in the sense that there is a surprisingly thin line between the movie being an imaginative children's fantasy or being an adult-oriented horror comedy, featuring a kind of eccentricity that allows the movie to go down one of those two paths, depending on who is involved on the production team.
With that said, it shouldn't sound surprising that Willy Wonka is based off of a novel by author Roald Dahl, whose various children's books contain darkly comic attitudes and rather macabre settings. Dahl is credited with writing the screenplay for the film, but according to IMDb, Dahl was furious with the way his book was treated, and he refused to see the film in its entirety. This is due to reports that un-credited screenwriter David Seltzer did several re-writes, so much so that it doesn't make any sense as to why Dahl is still credited. But anyway, the darkly comic and unsettling attitude coming from the novel is still there in the film, which throws the specific details of Dahl's complaints into question.
Taking place in a small town, paperboy Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) lives in poverty with his widowed mother (Diana Sowle) and his bedridden grandparents. Charlie's Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) tells Charlie a story of the town's mysterious Wonka chocolate factory: The factory's owner Willy Wonka locked the factory because other candy makers attempted to break into the factory and steal recipes. Wonka disappeared, but three years later, the factory began producing chocolate and candies again.
One day, Wonka announces that he has hidden five Golden Tickets inside his chocolate Wonka bars. Whoever finds the tickets will be given a tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. The first four tickets are found by the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), the heavily spoiled Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), the rude gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), and the TV addict Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen). Charlie is able to find the fifth and final ticket, and he takes Grandpa Joe with him on the factory tour.
Discussing Willy Wonka in considerable length almost requires spoiling everything that happens, but since the movie is so ingrained in pop culture, is it really possible for me to spoil the major beats of this movie? As the movie plays out, it becomes clear that the movie presents to you a simple message about how, "if you are a good child, you will go far in life." It is no accident that all of the ticket-winning children not named Charlie Bucket are repulsive little devils that all display a specific behavior not to be found in a well-mannered child. All of the bad children get their comeuppance while touring the factory, and the Oompa Loompas sing various little tunes about how gorging oneself with food, being a spoiled brat, not having any manners, and watching too much television will hold you back. So is it fair to claim that Willy Wonka is being preachy? Probably. But is it also hard to be angry at Willy Wonka for being a little preachy because it's so imaginative? Also probably.
- When the movie transitions to the factory tour, it becomes Gene Wilder's flick. Wilder does an excellent job of presenting Willy Wonka as the eccentric tour guide that he is. The entire time, we are never sure if Wonka is being serious or treating everything like it's all a game, which we get a sense of the first time we meet him: Wonka comes out of the factory with a noticeable limp, but right when he reaches the front gate, he does a somersault. This little act tells us right away that Wonka is not who everyone thinks he might be. Wilder's performance is marvelously quirky, and he gives the character an aura of mystery that perfectly complements his equally quirky chocolate factory.
- Strangely enough, the movie is a little light on actual musical content, containing only about I think four or five songs. I would think it'd be appropriate if every one of the children on the tour was able to sing a song about why they are the way they are, but the only child who gets to do that is Veruca Salt. The only song that Charlie gets to be a part of is when he helps Grandpa Joe get out of bed and start walking again. And the only song that Gene Wilder gets to sing is when they enter the giant chocolate room in the factory where literally everything is edible and he sings the famous song about pure imagination. I'm not counting what the Oompa Loompas sing because they're all variations of one another, with just a change in the lyrics. I think some more musical content would have helped the film with character development as well as help it better balance its musical and fantasy components. Most of the children are simply restricted to their bad personality traits, and we never get a glimpse into maybe why the bad children came to be the way they are.
So while there are flaws to be addressed (and what exactly those flaws are will vary depending on who you're talking to), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory remains even all these years later a candy sweet fantasy that has the honor of being as equally appealing to children as it is to adults. It's a film bolstered by its imagination and a wonderful performance by Gene Wilder, and you can watch it time and time again and never get the least bit tired of it. And while it is far from being a musical fantasy masterpiece like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka has enough of a sense of wonder to warrant it as a children's classic.
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