104. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)

“What is this, a freak out?”–Violet Beauregarde

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Mel Stuart

FEATURING: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole

PLOT:  Charlie is a poor boy supporting his mother and four bedridden grandparents with the earnings from his paper route.  When eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka announces he will be awarding a lifetime supply of chocolate and a tour of his mysterious candy factory to the finders of five golden tickets, Charlie wants to win more than anything.  When he, along with four bratty companions, finally meets the exceedingly odd Mr. Wonka,  Charlie finds the factory, and its owner, far stranger and more magical than anything he could have imagined.

Still from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • A note for those who believe product placement and corporate tie-ins are a recent phenomenon in movies: although this film was based on Roald Dahl’s bestelling children’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” it was retitled to incorporate the Wonka name in order to promote the release of real-life Wonka candy bars (which were still made up until 2010) by Quaker Oats, who financed the production.
  • Dahl himself wrote the original script, but it was extensively rewritten by an uncredited David (The Hellstrom Chronicles) Seltzer, reportedly to Dahl’s displeasure.  (It’s worth noting that Dahl, like most authors, pretty much hated every adaptation of his work).
  • This was the only movie Peter Ostrum (Charlie) ever acted in.
  • The movie just broke even at the box office, but became a cult sensation thanks to television screenings and home video.  In 2003, Entertainment Weekly ranked Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the 25th biggest cult movie of all time.
  • The score was nominated for a “Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score” Oscar but lost to Fiddler on the Roof.
  • Despite the fact that he was rejected for the role of the candy shop owner in the film, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 1972 rendition of the film’s first musical number, “The Candy Man,” became a #1 hit and a staple of his live shows.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton‘s 2005 adaptation of the same material with as Wonka, is somewhat closer to Dahl’s original novel.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wonka’s face, bathed in flashing red and green lights, as he shrieks incoherently at the end of his terrifying trip down a psychedelic tunnel of horrors.  It’s the capping image of a horrifying scene that’s been scarring unsuspecting children for 40 years now.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Is it Gene Wilder’s ultra-eccentric performance as the charming but vaguely demonic candyman in a purple velvet jacket and burgundy top hat who suavely arranges for wicked children to hang themselves with the licorice ropes of their own vice? Or the chorus of orange-faced, green haired, dwarf laborers who sing moralizing “Oompah Loompah” tunes after each victim ironically offs him or herself? No, we all know it’s the bad trip boat ride, where Wonka recites Edgar Allan Poe inspired verse (“By the fires of Hell a’ glowing/Is the grisly reaper mowing?”) as the craft careens down a tunnel of horrors while colored strobe lights flash and avant-garde footage plays on the walls that tips this celebration of imagination into the weird column.


Original trailer for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

COMMENTS: When I was a kid, they used to play Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ontelevision exactly once a year (just like that other annual TV staple Wonka so closely resembles, The Wizard of Oz).  The first time I saw it, what lodged itself in my mind was the singing and dancing Oompah Loompahs.  I think “oompah loompah doompity do” must have been stuck in my head throughout the third grade.  When the next year’s showing rolled around, I eagerly tuned in, expecting more hot candy, child jeopardy, and painted-midget action.  The second time around, I remember being disappointed at how long it took to actually get inside the magical candy factory; it was an eternity of waiting, 45 whole minutes of sickly singing, corny comedy, and a weepy family poverty drama before the debonair Mr. Wonka rolled himself down that red carpet and let the kids inside to try way too many experimental confectioneries and have some good, scary fun.

If there’s one legitimate criticism to be lodged against Wonka, it’s my old childhood complaint—it takes too long to get out of dreary reality and into the chocolate factory.  Remember how quickly Oz whisked us out of drab Kansas?  Wonka loiters in a mundane Munich.  As an adult, I find the pre-factory scenes mildly amusing—the worldwide furor over the chocolate contest, the incompetent teacher who multiplies Charlie’s candy bars by a factor of one hundred because he can’t figure out decimal percentage—but the movie, which limps along pleasantly enough to start, suddenly reveals hidden greatness when Gene Wilder somersaults onto the stage as Wonka.  Dressed like a Victorian fop outfitted by Hugh Hefner, quick with an erudite non sequitur (when a girl tells him there’s no such thing as a snozberry, Wonka replies “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”), Wonka is, to say the least, an unpredictable fellow.  Wilder prances about, swinging his cane haphazardly at his guests, plucking hairs from their heads at random, and expressing mock concern for their fates after they disobey his direct orders. (“I don’t understand it, the children are disappearing like rabbits,” he says nonchalantly).  He’s sarcastic, and insults everyone in the tour group without their realizing it, yet he remains a lovable father figure—to Charlie, at least.

It’s partially his sincere, childlike love of “pure imagination” that makes any transgression Wonka commits seem harmless, but mainly its the fact that Wonka reserves his wry wrath for those who truly deserve it.  Besides pure-hearted Charlie, the chocolate mogul has invited along four of the most wickedly bratty children anyone could ever hope to see get their poetic comeuppances, along with their equally despicable chaperone parents.  Each kid represents some sort of childhood deadly sin—gluttony, greed, and, uh, gum-chewing and TV-addiction.  Wonka has filled his candy factory full of deadly attractive nuisances, like a river of chocolate and a teleportation machine, calculated to lure naughty children to their doom.  Each tot meets a nasty fate when they let their baser natures get in the way of good behavior.  One is half-drowned and sent to be boiled; another bloated with juice and threatened with explosion; one falls down a garbage chute leading to a furnace; and the final victim is shrunk and sent to be stretched on the rack.  Even Charlie himself has a moment of weakness that almost leads to him and his grandpa being cut to ribbons by fan blades.  The parents freak out, and Wonka shows an amusingly appalling lack of concern, explaining at one point that a kid’s odds of survival are pretty good, as the furnace is only lit every other day.  There’s an Old Testament pitilessness to the ironic punishments each sinful child endures; there’s a black and white moral lesson to be learned, but kids also thrill to the spectacle of bad kids getting theirs (as long as the good one gets his ultimate reward).  It’s as black of a comedy as most kids can endure, but they savor being pushed to their limits.

That punishment/reward morality play forms Chocolate Factory‘s basic structure, but what lodges the film in the memory is the parade of extravagant, imaginative, and often weird set pieces.  There’s the living coat hangers that grab visitor’s hats off their heads unbidden.  Our first glimpse of the Chocolate Room, with its liquid chocolate waterfall, candy toadstools, and lollipops growing on the banks of a muddy cocoa stream.  The refugee race of Oompah Loompahs, with their orange complexions, green hair, bushy white eyebrows, and synchronized dance numbers.  Violet turning into a blueberry and being rolled off for juicing.  Veruca Salt’s show-stopping, foot-stomping dance tantrum “I Want the World!” (“I want the world, I want the whole world/I want to lock it all up in my pocket, it’s my bar of chocolate!”)  Fizzy lifting drinks.  Wonka’s office with it’s half-lamp, half-clock and half-safe.  “You get nothing!”  And, of course, the cherry on the sundae, the mad boat ride through the chocolate factory’s tunnel of horrors, which looks like what  would have delivered if he’d been hired to design the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World.  Among the images that play on the tunnel walls as the Loompah-propelled gondola speeds heedlessly along are a giant eye, a man with a snake slithering across his lips, and a chicken being decapitated (!)

Willy Wonka likely looks weirder to an adult than it does to a child, for whom it’s splendiferous wonders are just everyday magic.  But—and here’s why the film belongs on a weird movie list—Wonka‘s sugar-rush produces the kind of candy-coated hallucinations that stick with you for a lifetime.  Face it, if you saw this as a kid, a Greek chorus of Oompah Loompahs are forever bobbing up and down in your memory, warning you about the dangers of greed, gluttony, and gum-chewing every time you even think about climbing out on the precarious banks of a chocolate river.  Admit it—the mere thought of a three-course dinner compressed into a stick of gum now fills you with unthinking dread.  This is the sort of delightful lifelong psychological trauma Willy Wonka breeds in us.  It’s what makes it the perfect gateway weirdness for that treasured tyke in your life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never finds an appropriate style; it’s stilted and frenetic, like Prussians at play.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

“…captures the spirit of Dahl’s children’s literature, which mixed typically bright and cheery flights of imaginative fantasy with unexpectedly dark and bizarre undertones… the film also reflects a sort of last gasp of ‘60s psychedelia: the bright colors of Wonka’s factory would not be inappropriate on a poster advertising a rock festival, and a scary boat ride through a dark tunnel (complete with flashing lights and horrifying images, like a chicken’s head being chopped off) feels like a bad acid trip… The supporting cast (including veteran character actors Jack Albertson and Roy Kinear) does a nice job of embodying Dahl’s weird caricatures.”–Steve Biodrowski, Cinefastique (DVD)

“For all the wonder of a film, with its bouncy, silly songs, art design in candy colors, and mix of innocence and strangeness, there is also an edge to Gene Wilder’s simultaneously weird and warm eccentricities, like a mix of storybook fantasy and Grimm Fairy tale updated to the industrial world of the twentieth century.”–Sean Axmaker, MSN Movies (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Golden Tickets to Hell: Willy Wonka – Tour Guide of the Abyss – Good analysis by science fiction author Lou Anders, pointing out Wonka‘s debt to Dante’s Inferno

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory Fan Club – There are some fun quizzes, polls and so forth on this FanPop page dedicated to the movie

Willy Wonka’s everlasting film plot – A BBC article on Dahl’s reaction to the adaptation of his book

20 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ – trivia nuggets about the film courtesy of the moviephone blog

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Dahl’s orginal children’s novel

Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Director Mel Stuart’s account of the making of the film

I Want it Now! A Memoir of Life on the Set of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Memoir by actress Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt)

DVD INFO:  As befits a peculiar movie, Willy Wonka has had an interesting video release history.  Wonka became one of the best-renting titles on VHS, far surpassing the popularity of its original theatrical run.  Today the Wonka fan has a large variety of options to choose from to own the film. In 2005, Warner released a “special edition” DVD containing numerous extras including the original trailer, the featurette “Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (named after director Mel Stuart’s memoir), a photo gallery, four karaoke-style sing along numbers, and commentary by the five grown-up child stars.  The odd thing about the release is that, underestimating the cultiness of the film’s rabid audience, Warner originally planned to release it only in a chopped pan n’ scan full screen version; after a letter writing/e-mail petition, they added a widescreen option.  Though now out of print, both of these DVDs are still widely available and can be purchased at bargain prices (Full Screen/Widescreen).

2011 saw Warner do it right (or go overboard, depending on your viewpoint) with the release of a deluxe 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo set (buy) that includes all the special features of the previous release but adds a new interview with director Mel Stuart and a short original promotional film and comes in a collector’s box with a 144 page (!) book, and even includes a pencil case shaped like a Wonka bar.

If you’re not interested in the knicknacks you can save money and purchase the DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy) separately (no word on special features available in these editions).

An even cheaper option is to rent or buy the film through Video-on-Demand (Video on Demand).

(This movie was nominated for review by “MCD,” who reminded us it comes “complete with one of the scariest moments in movie history, the infamous boat ride.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “104. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)”

  1. One other thing that I’ve learned since recommending this movie. To this day, people walk up to Gene Wilder, say ‘Yours was better’, and he doesn’t need to ask what they’re talking about.

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