Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: G
Directed by: Mel Stuart
Written by: Roald Dahl
(based on the novel CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl)
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, Denise Nickerson, Michael Bollner, Gunter Meisner
It’s hard to believe that WILLY WONKA bombed in it’s originally theatrical run. Indeed, that was the case. Disowned by Roald Dahl and remade by Tim Burton, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY has gone on to become the definitive version of this story (like it or not) and holds up as a timeless classic that will live on forever in the history of cinema. It’s officially a cult film (gaining lots of steam from frequent TV airings in the 1980’s) and one of the most influential cinematic fairy tales that’s perfect for all ages. A quirky sense of humor and child-like innocence hovers over the entire movie. WILLY WONKA is not without a couple of iffy moments (that can easily be forgiven), but it’s still a magical experience that hasn’t aged a day.
Charlie Bucket is a young boy living in poor conditions with his single mother and four bedridden grandparents. The foreboding Wonka chocolate factory that sits undisturbed behind iron gates has always fascinated Charlie, but things get interesting when Willy Wonka (the candy man himself) announces that five golden tickets have randomly been placed in the wrappers of Wonka bars. Whoever holds these tickets will be granted a special tour of the Wonka’s factory and a chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Through sheer luck, Charlie snags a ticket and goes on the tour with a group of four bratty kids who have a different vices. The factory is not necessarily the safest place in the world and moral lessons are deliciously dished out on the more rambunctious children.
It’s hard to imagine a film enthusiast who hasn’t seen this 1971 classic or the 2005 incarnation. Rest assured, when compared to Tim Burton’s tolerable retelling, Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka still stands as one of the most memorable characters to ever grace the silver screen. While Wilder can get a little too odd in some places (quoting a weird language for no apparent reason or throwing out a random phrase), he’s a powerhouse in this role. There are plenty of dark humored moments (e.g. his apathetic attitude towards a bad kid about to get their well-deserved comeuppance or their equally annoying parents), but the film is a sweet confection as a whole (kind of like one of Wonka’s tasty treats).
All of the child actors and other adults inhabit roles that aren’t necessarily meant to be fully fleshed-out. These are archetypes of certain questionable morals and values, while Charlie is wholly innocent (though not without a few character faults of his own). It serves the purpose of this being a cautionary tale for young ones, but also an uplifting fable that has stood the test of time. The Oompa-Loompa factory workers have since gone on become iconic as well. I could easily see some young toddler being freaked out by these orange-faced, green-haired creatures (played by a barrage of little people), but they also have that sense of whimsy without ever resembling anything cute.
One thing that I had completely forgotten about was just how funny the skit-like segments tossed in the opening third of the film are. As the search for the golden tickets increases, the viewer is treated to various adults (scientists, cops, therapists, etc.) taking drastic measures to find them. These bits provide a lot of humor as well as showcasing the passage of time in entertaining ways. Something also needs to be said about how the film is deliberately paced in letting the viewer sweat out if Charlie will ever wind up with a golden ticket. I know this story well (as do tons of other people), but there is a palpable unease in the opening third that does make you worry for Charlie. Transitions into songs can seem a little sudden. Words popping up as the Oompa-Loompas sing a couple of their tunes make these scenes seem more like a music video than the actual film itself and “Cheer Up, Charlie” is a bland piece that sticks out like a sore thumb. The rest of the music and unforgettable score are fantastic. “World of Pure Imagination” is the song that always pops into my head every time this movie is mentioned and holds as the best song in the bunch (the score of this number also serves as a suitable number to the opening and end credits).
It’s a little shocking to find that Roald Dahl (whose script was unofficially re-written by David Seltzer) disowned this movie as a kind of insult to his material and that Tim Burton sticks closer to the actual novel. I particularly love the inclusion of the Slugworth character (who wasn’t a huge part of the original book and didn’t pop up in the remake) and this makes the ending something for more worthy of cheering for. The production seems to be similar to 1980’s THE SHINING as far as the author hating it and the film becoming a celebrated classic, despite the author’s disapproval. WONKA was the fifty-third highest grossing film in 1971 and that’s nothing to brag about (only 4 million total). What is worth noting is how the film has surpassed the odds and become a seminal wonder. This joyous, colorful fairy tale contains moral lessons without coming off as forced. It’s the definitive version of this story and there are many solid reasons for that. Despite a bad song and a couple of overly weird lines from Wilder, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is the kind of movie that will live on forever as it is a work of pure imagination!