Screenshot from Willy Wonka

Wonka and his infamous "pimp" cane.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – (1971)

Director: Mel Stuart
Starring: Gene Wilder, Jack Alberston, Peter Ostrum
Screenplay by: Roald Dahl, David Seltzer

(I apologize for the delays with the Childhood Revisited saga. It’s been a tough couple of months, and as I started working on 2 side projects, as well as providing the occasional write-up for Destructoid [along with the day job], which left me struggling to do weekly writeups. So while I won’t be getting back into the weekly C.R. reviews, I’ll try and provide one or two every month. No promises, as I also like to write about other things. :) )

I had the recent pleasure of watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was a lot more fun than I expected. And with my recent foray into all things animated, light, whimsical and fun, I thought it would be fitting to try re-watching Willy Wonka. (I wonder if I should review James and the Giant Peach at some point.) It was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day write-up, then an Easter one, but I missed all those dates, so now it’s simply a regular one. I’m a bit rusty with my analysis of these things, so forgive me if it seems a bit “off.”

NOSTALGIC LENS: Every so often, there’s a not-so-subtle push to rear kids via their (supposedly) most-loved passion: candy. This and books like The Chocolate Touch used thinly-veiled metaphors to teach lessons through the delight and, uh, power of confectionery. I liked candy, but didn’t LOVE it, so I pretty much tossed aside the lessons as pointless to me. As for the movie itself, I remembered bits and pieces, but nothing that stood out, save for the chocolate river scene. Oddly enough, the part that freaks people out the most – the psychedelic boat ride – was completely gone from my memory.

DOES IT HOLD UP: I love the 70s completely unironically – from its overall sense of fashion and style, to its endearing exuberance to its cheesy TV shows, lame game show concept, overwrought music, and “whatever” dance styles in vogue (the commitment to these entertainment styles is what makes them stand out). 70s films were, overall, of two types: deep in a bizarre sense, and comical in an ironic, detached sense. One of the reasons Star Wars stood out was that its blockbuster sensibilities was so novel and straightforward and played everything real.

Willy Wonka makes great use of the latter aesthetic, being such a whimsical, devil-may-care type of film. I’ve never read the original novel, but even I can gather how much it deviated from it. (Apparently Dahl hated it.) It’s a musical, yes, but even through its melodies and comedy, the film just breaks from its original narrative not only for song cues, but for random gags attributed to a specific point in the story. It’s two insane stories in one: a international assault-search for golden tickets in Wonka bars, and a tour of Wonka’s eccentric factory with goofy yet semi-dark consequences, and during each section, we’re treated to almost variety-show-like moments that seem to take in the full extent of filmic styles of the time. The separate beats seem off but are remarkably held together by a strong and coherent style, a fun cast, and a catchy batch of tunes.

This ten minute clip is the perfect epitome to showcase what I mean. The slightly awkward “child in the chocolate” part is undermined by goofy faces and Wonka’s witticisms – which is then undermined again when he is sucked up the tube into god-knows-where. Scary? Not for long – a goofy whistle and a Oompah Loompah song calms the nerves and teaches you a quiet lesson, kiddies. That’s fine. And then it’s a boat ride into a drug-fueled TUNNEL OF HORROR, because why not?

Then it’s back to the fun stuff.

Willy Wonka is a huge risk of a film, because there’s no reason for anything to happen the way it does. There no need for the music numbers, or the side jokes, or the abject weird tunnel scene or any number of visual elements; nor is Wonka supposed to be a laureate of classic literature and poetry. But it’s there. And if there’s one thing that the internet has taught me, it’s that if you’re going to do something for no reason, you might as well do it amazingly, like if you were to, oh, let’s say, do a live-action version of the song “After Today” from A Goofy Movie.

Of course, not all of it is random, and I’m happy to say that the parts that do matter are just as great as the parts that don’t. Gene Wilder is a great Wonka, that perfect mystery of a character who’s both carefree and careless, who carries the film during ever dark and light moment with nary a concern in the world. All the children were surprisingly great, even being mostly one note, although I will give special mention to Veruca Salt, played by Julie Dawn Cole, for being such a great spoiled brat and really owning the character. The set design and cinematography is exquisite, the gags still hold up, and the music is exceedingly endearing: tell me you don’t want to sing along to “Pure Imagination”:

Still, its dated aesthetic is still apparent, and as I mentioned earlier, certain gags come off a bit stilted and awkward. (And that ending is so tacked on and rushed that it’s really disappointing). But overall, its enjoyable and, unlike other musicals, the songs aren’t way too long.

IN A NUTSHELL: Want makes this movie truly work is that, despite its visual datedness, it’s still really a delight and would definitely hold up for children today (which I couldn’t quite say for something like The Goonies or Wizard of Oz.) It’s emphasis on kids and their behavior, against the backdrop of sugary goodness (which will NEVER grow old) makes Willy Wonka a particularly, yet truly, timeless classic.

NEXT FILM: Cats Don’t Dance


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  1. #1 by redfoxfan on June 5, 2010 - 9:09 pm

    No amount of film theory or analysis will ever solve the mystery of that tunnel of terror.

    “Hmm, let’s see, we’ve dissected Stalker, Citizen Kane and Star Wars. Let’s try Willy Wonka…

    OMGWTF? This thing is so creepy and wrong yet bright and sweet…and WTF was with that tunnel!”

    Nonetheless, this is one my all time favorites. The remake doesn’t do it a lick of justice (despite its good parts).

  2. #2 by kjohnson1585 on June 7, 2010 - 1:20 pm

    I would say the remake wasn’t too dedicated to the original movie, but more to the original book. I wouldn’t know how well that worked out, though.

    Yeah, other than a ‘you need to be high right now’ vibe, the tunnel is a pointless mystery.

  3. #3 by MadNessMonster on June 7, 2010 - 4:05 pm

    Yeah, the Tim Burton “Chocolate Factory” is not a remake but a direct adaptation of the original printed-page Roald “Hardest Author Name To Spell Off the Top of Your Head” Dahl’s book (and even then, it deviates towards the end.) The fact that almost everyone I know and everyone THEY know rejected it outright tells you that Adaptation Displacement is very real. Thing is, it may be a better adaptation of the book — but the ’70’s “Chocolate Factory” is by far the better movie.

    I figure the tunnel is coming from the same headspace as, say, Large Marge or the Pink Elephants. That doesn’t explain any of them at all, mind you.

    By the way, you should review “James and the Giant Peach” as it gets lost in the shuffle of Dahl-based movies and is a particularly good one. And I can’t wait to read your review of “Cats Don’t Dance”. Great little sadly forgotten aberration in the animated films of the ’90s.

  4. #4 by Jon on June 8, 2010 - 10:29 pm

    Great post. Glad to have you back. You forgot to mention Gene Wilder’s stand-out performance as Willy Wonka, unmatched by Johnny Depp or anyone else for that matter. Who else could do that character?

  5. #5 by Adam W. on September 16, 2011 - 6:12 am

    I love Willy Wonka, I wish I could visit that place too..
    My kids would certainly love that, as our family really loves to travel

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