Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Reclusive and extremely secretive confectionary maker Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) hides five golden tickets in his chocolate bars sent out across the world that allow those lucky consumers to take part in a personal tour of his chocolate factory. Will poor, good-hearted Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) be one of the lucky winners? Jack Albertson plays Charlie’s Grandpa Joe, Julie Dawn Cole is the tantrum-throwing spoiled brat Veruca Salt, Denise Nickerson plays greedy motor-mouth Violet, and Gunter Meissner plays the nasty Mr. Slugworth, hoping to steal Wonka’s secrets.

I hate musicals as is well-established by now, but this 1971 Mel Stuart (mostly a documentarian, with films such as the enjoyable concert movie “Wattstax”) film is one of the greatest films of all-time. Anyone who says the Tim Burton remake is more true to the Roald Dahl book, meanwhile, hasn’t read it in years. It’s Dahl’s most innocuous and lightweight novel, just about and Stuart gets it pretty damn perfect. I also love chocolate, so I was always going to love this. Scripted by Dahl but later largely re-written by an uncredited David Seltzer (writer of my favourite horror film “The Omen”, writer-director of the teen classic “Lucas”), the author disowned the film but I really do think Stuart gets the spirit of the novel right and being very familiar now with both book and film, I still haven’t noticed any massive differences. It’s classic storytelling for the young and young at heart: Good, honest boy gets good things. Bad children get punished by orange pygmies. In all seriousness, Charlie Bucket is one of the most sympathetic characters in all of literature and cinema, and an excellent audience/reader surrogate. This is a not very well-to-do kid who lives with his mum and four grandparents, has his own job, and gets cabbage water for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My point? Don’t ever tell me you’ve got it bad. You want nothing but good things to happen to this poor, nice young man and for all his dreams to come true. There aren’t many more joyous moments in cinema than when Charlie unravels the golden ticket. In fact, as sad and mean-spirited as parts of the story are, it’s on the whole a joyous, infectious, and heart-warming film. As far as I’m concerned, this film  is childhood and at times it’s even a teaching tool for the right and wrong behaviour.

We start with mouth-watering opening credits imagery showing how the chocolate is made. It’s enough to make you want to hurl yourself at the screen. Less inviting is the exterior of Wonka’s factory, which looks like bloody Auschwitz (it was shot in Munich, Germany and looks it), with Mr. Slugworth being played by Gunter Meissner, who played Hitler and various Nazis countless times in his career. Personally, I think the film is actually darker than the novel, with the Wonkatania scene perhaps getting just a tad too dark. Trust me, anyone who saw this film as a kid can tell you stories about that. I’d remove one or two frames from the scene. I’m not talking about Roald Dahl darkness either, as I said the book (which doesn’t contain Slugworth, I might add) is quite innocuous, if darkly humorous at times. Despite my loathing of musicals, the score and almost all of the songs are wonderful. ‘Pure Imagination’ should’ve won an Oscar and a Grammy, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written. If you don’t love ‘The Candyman’, meanwhile, you objectively suck. The only blight on the entire film? ‘Cheer up, Charlie’. It’s mopey, wet, weepie, and lyrically insipid. Seriously, it’s the only flaw with the entire film and I hate, hate, hate it.

Peter Ostrum (now a vet, I believe) is solid as Charlie, but this is obviously Gene Wilder’s movie. His Willy Wonka has one of cinema’s greatest entrances. It’s perfect, and he’s perfect; Crazed, mercurial, a showman, kind, gentle, aloof, condescending…everything in one character. My favourite thing about him is how insincere he is at times, especially when the ‘naughty’ children get their just desserts. His lack of giveashit is hilarious. It’s not until the final moments that you really find out what his deal is. Wilder, Wonka, and the film otherwise keep you guessing. However, what Wilder does that Johnny Depp and Tim Burton failed to do in the later version of the tale, is give Wonka a sweetness, a gentle quality…even if it’s not until towards the end that you realise whether he’s truly sincere or not. That said, you also get moments of ‘Gene Wilder does shouty Gene Wilder stuff’ too, particularly in the Wonkatania scene. So you might want to cover your ears for that.

The other standouts in the supporting cast are Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole, the inimitable Roy Kinnear, and the aforementioned Mr. Meissner who is so effective in the early going that you’re quite up-ended when we find out what’s really going on with him. Jack Albertson simply is Grandpa Joe for me, and a joy throughout. Some have argued that Grandpa Joe is a real troublemaker in this. Those people need to lighten the hell up. Yes, he does suggest he’ll give the gobstopper to Slugworth, but otherwise I think people are reading way too much into it just so they can ruin a childhood classic. Of all the child actors playing the little shits who meet a sorry fate, Julie Dawn Cole’s spoiled brat Veruca Salt stands head and shoulders among the rest. She’s thoroughly rotten and obnoxious, and veteran character actor Roy Kinnear is pitch-perfect as her long-suffering, hard-working father. You can never have too much Roy Kinnear in a film. David Battley has one of his best screen roles as Charlie’s science and maths teacher. Also look out for a priceless cameo by an exasperated Tim Brooke-Taylor (TV’s immortal “The Goodies”). Is the cameo somewhat needless and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things? Yes, but I love “The Goodies” so you can go take a flying leap. In fact, all of the interview/ticket-searching scenes in the film are genuinely funny. I particularly liked Augustus Gloop’s dad eating a microphone, and a droll bit where a woman’s wealthy husband is held for ransom. What kind of ransom? His supply of Wonka bars. Hilarious. The confectionary production and set design in this is wondrous and imaginative; The lickable walls, the coat and hat racks that appear to be living entities, the tiny room (well before Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman came up with the 7 ½ floor), the entire ‘Pure Imagination’ set piece (and set, with several pieces that really were edible) in particular is an all-time great. It’s also the scene that is most evident of Gene Wilder at his best, right down to Wonka pulling out one of boob-tube obsessed Mike Teevee’s hairs.

Although laced with Roald Dahl’s darkly humorous world view, this is perfect family entertainment that can still be enjoyed well into adulthood. I didn’t even mind (most) of the songs. A must for choc-o-holics as well. A true cinematic classic.

Rating: A+


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