Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Dir. by Mel Stuart
Starring Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum and Jack Albertson
When eccentric and reclusive candy company magnate Willy Wonka announces a contest for a lifetime supply of chocolate, a worldwide hunt begins for five Golden Tickets. Poor paperboy Charlie Bucket lucks into the final Ticket, and together with the other four winners he joins Wonka on a surreal tour through the fantasy land that is his factory.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this was the first live-action (as in, non-Disney animated) musical that I ever saw. I say this because, while I’m sure that I saw Wizard of Oz while I was young, I have absolutely no memory of watching it, whereas I do have very concrete memories of seeing Willy Wonka as early as age 7. I don’t think I’ve seen it since the (rather terrible) Tim Burton remake came out in 2005, but I still remember pretty much all of the songs and set pieces.
This…is a really weird movie. It’s divided into two halves, which bear almost no resemblance to each other at all. And almost everything that anyone remembers is from the last forty minutes or so of the movie. However, I feel like that’s actually a strength of the movie. It’s as eccentric as its title character, and as Charlie says in the movie “and that’s not bad!”
Speaking of Willy Wonka, this is perhaps the definitive Gene Wilder performance. Sure, his collaborations with Mel Brooks resulted in some of the greatest comedies of all time, but whenever I picture Wilder in my head, he’s wearing a purple velvet frock coat. He has the perfect mix of playfulness and deadpan snark to pull off the role. Despite the fact that he doesn’t actually appear until halfway through the movie, Wilder dominates the screen from the moment he enters it. In fact, that entrance – in which he hobbles out onto the red carpet with a cane, slowly walks towards the crowd, before falling down and turning it into an athletic tumble – was actually Wilder’s idea in the first place. Although Charlie Bucket is the main character, and the book was in fact named Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, I feel that the movie’s name change was justified.
Being a musical, it helps to have songs that are actually memorable. And this one definitely has more than its share. I remembered every song in it but one (“Cheer Up Charlie”), and that one came back to me in full at the first line. “The Candy Man” was the song that was the pop hit at the time, but it’s Wonka’s song, “Pure Imagination,” that’s stuck in popular culture through the decades. An instrumental version of the song was used for the trailer to Ready Player One, for example, despite being nearly a decade older than every other pop culture reference in the film, because it fits so well with the movie’s plot of “Willy Wonka, but a video game designer.”
The film is, of course, a morality play, with each of Charlie’s companions representing a different negative personality trait. This was very obvious to me even as a kid. What was less obvious was that Charlie himself represents one: envy. He’s first introduced staring longingly through a candy store window at all of the other kids enjoying treats that he can’t afford. He gets mocked by his teacher for not participating in the Golden Ticket contest, even though his lack of participation is not by choice, but rather an economic necessity for his family. And when he initially believes that the contest is over, he sinks into a depression, having defined his worth by his ability to win the contest and now believing himself to be even more of a failure than before. Unlike the other children, however, Charlie is actually able to conquer this trait. It is his personal sacrifice at the end, returning the Gobstopper to Wonka even though he could sell it for a lot of money, which ultimately wins him the contest.
In fact, the entire movie contains a whole lot of what TV Tropes calls “parental bonus.” Pretty much everything Wonka says contains a reference to a famous work of literature, something that most definitely went completely over my head as a child. I also missed a whole lot of the social satire of the first half of the movie, especially the innuendo of the computer programmer telling his machine “exactly what it can do with a lifetime supply of chocolate” after it refuses to help him win the contest.
Finally, we have to bring up that boat sequence. Where the hell did that come from? I most definitely remembered it from way back. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone who saw this as a child didn’t. It might be the most inexplicably terrifying sequence in an otherwise perfectly fine children’s film ever made. And I love it. Wilder’s increasingly frantic monologue, which ends with him screaming at the audience in a tight close-up, is the best single distillation of Wilder’s film persona. That none of the other actors were told about it in advance, and therefore gave perfectly realistic reactions, just makes the scene better.
Roald Dahl himself reportedly hated the adaptation, though reports differ somewhat on the degree of this dislike. Most of the disagreement seems to have hinged on the producers re-writing the script behind his back, which I guess is a reasonable complaint. He also hated “Pure Imagination,” however, which makes me less inclined to sympathize with his side. The adaptation also cleared up some of the very unfortunate racial aspects of the book, as the Oompa Loompas were originally written as explicitly African, which would make the already patronizing tone of Wonka’s “rescue” of them even more uncomfortable.
This is one of the key movies from my early childhood, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t be objective about it even if I tried. I have a niece who just turned three last week, and I’m looking forward to introducing her to it. I might wait another year or two, though. I don’t think she’s quite ready for the boat scene yet.
-I actually have a friend who owns an original Golden Ticket and Wonka Bar (well, his family does, at least). His family was related to Gene Wilder by marriage, but he didn’t know he was famous or anything and had never seen Willy Wonka until he was in high school.
-“Pure Imagination” wasn’t even nominated for the Best Song Oscar that year. While I don’t think it would have beaten the Shaft theme, which won, it’s certainly better than three of the other nominees, none of which I think I’d ever heard before.