Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971 USA)

Roald Dahl’s Grimm-like book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” gets a careful, pointed musical treatment here, involving five Golden Ticket-winning children who get to tour a mysterious chocolate factory–at their own expense. Turns out the journey is a test of their personalities and upbringings, and while the film is a little presumptuous to suggest that the poorest child may be the most noble and honest (as if all rich kids are rotten). This must be in the top 10 of the most entertaining films of the last 100 years. Few people haven’t seen this.

How many other motion pictures are: 1) a morality tale showing what happens if you do not pay attention, 2) warns you not to eat too much, 3) warns you not to pick up bad habits such as watching too much TV, 4) warns parents how they can spoil their children’s character. It champions innocence, honesty and childhood dreams. As Wonka says “I couldn’t leave it to an adult, they would change things”. The factory is a place where anything can (and does) happen. Infinitely watchable, wonderful characters – four absolutely beastly children, one underdog; one manic chocolate maker and a host of Oompah Loompahs which were rescued from snozzwangers and vermicious kernids! What more could anyone want?

All of the best Dahl sort into either scathing satire of the misdeeds of awful adults, or dreamy love-letters to the powers of fantasy and imagination. Wonka brings the best of both in spades. Cheerfully echoing The Wizard of Oz’s ‘real world/fantasy escape’ divide, director Mel Stuart opts for stylized zaniness in his depiction of protagonist Charlie’s pre-factory life, but only to draw out the oppressive nonsensical iniquities and dullness therein. Charlie’s ‘real life’ is beset by gawking, bedridden grandparents with matching names, or jeering, power-tripping buffoons like his science teacher. Here, the only breaks seem to come to the most atrocious Veruca Salts of the world, who belligerently bludgeon the system into working for them. Stuart’s East German village setting feels perfectly stuffy and quaint but subtly picturesque throughout. Even the sole bright spot, Charlie’s mother singing “Cheer Up, Charlie,” is muted by her quaver of deep-seated hopelessness throughout.

Dahl’s central theme here – “If you’re very, very good, good things will come to you” – may verge on misleadingly naïve populism, but it’s top kid’s story morality. Peter Ostrum’s Charlie is so gosh- darn adorable that you practically draw blood clenching your fists willing him to find his ticket. He’s great casting: bright-eyed, soft-spoken, and practically vibrating with shy excitement. Even his occasionally flat acting feeds into his bashful earnestness. More importantly, rather than caving to the kind of saccharine sanctimoniousness that drenches most comparable ‘good boy’ performances, Ostrum plays Charlie with temperamentally and sometimes fickleness of a kid. It makes sharing his journey into the Chocolate Factory all the more intoxicating when we’re able to drink in just how important it is for this adorable fellow.

Wonka’s eponymous factory is a key example of the film showing its age in the best possible sense. The factory, built entirely with practical sets and props, feels euphorically tangible – half the magic of the peerless “Pure Imagination” sequence is watching the kids let loose on a field of tactile confections, smashing and chewing and slurping away in the most gleefully vicarious way. It’s still a masterclass of set design – a kaleidoscope of colourful, almost Seussian calibre of zany inventiveness, yet uncluttered enough to drink in the richness of detail (even if the chocolate river itself looks more sickly than delicious). the only complaints are that the episodic string of wonders can start to dry up somewhat after starting with the mesmerizing spectacle of the chocolate room (by the time we arrive at the Wonkavision room, we’ve lost some momentum), and the surreal interlude of the psychedelic river ride is the stuff of immediate nightmares in an otherwise family-friendly film.

Still, there’s no denying that Gene Wilder is the number one single reason this motion picture has reached such timeless, beloved status. From his unforgettable hobbling-turned- tumbling entrance onwards, Wilder’s Wonka is such a painstakingly realized rendition of an eccentric genius, that it’s almost palpable how engrossing it is watching him, knowing how quickly he can turn on a dime from dreamy to apoplectic. Lilting, light- as-a-feather physicality aside, Wilder does more with a twitch of his eyes and slight break in his voice when reciting any number of calculatedly nonsensical magpied quotations than other actors could do with a soliloquy. Wilder’s perfect cocktail of offbeat hilarity has never been put to better use, while the subtle touches of mad genius he sprinkles in throughout make it the performance of a lifetime. Supporting him, Jack Albertson’s Grandpa Joe heralds the perfect dose of rustic belligerence and galvanizing gumption. The rest of the cast are picture perfect as well. 🙂

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Comments

  1. Excellent film review, couldn’t agree more! Piece of trivia: This film is the only film Peter Ostrum has ever been in, he went on to become a veterinarian. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cheers & thank you for the info! 🙂

    Like

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