The 1971 musical fantasy WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is playing this weekend at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach – one of the few remaining revival theatres in Southern California that has survived in this era of home video. That’s reason enough, I figure, to take a look back at this film, which took us deep inside Wonka’s mysterious domain decades before Johnny Depp and Tim Burton had a go at the same story.
A box office disappointment in its own time, this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has come to be regarded as a children’s classic someone in the same league – if not quite on the same level – with THE WIZARD OF OZ. Written by Dahl, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY 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. Made in 1971, 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 only thing missing is a cool soundtrack by the Strawberry Alarm Clock; instead, we have to contend with songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.
Dahl’s script sticks fairly close to his book, but some changes (by uncredited co-screenwriter David Seltzer) have been made: Charlie no longer has a father who earns a penny a piece screwing lids onto toothpaste tubes; there is sub-plot with a rival confectioner who will pay Charlie to betray Wonka’s secrets; and the squirrels who determine that Veruca Salt is a “bad nut” have been replaced with enormous geese laying chocolate-golden eggs for Easter. Nonetheless, the essential story remains the same: Poor Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) dreams of finding one of five Golden Tickets that have been secreted inside Wonka chocolate bars. The winners (and one parent each) are allowed to go on a tour through Wonka’s top secretive chocolate factory. Once inside, the various spoiled brats meet appropriate fates until only Charlie is left, and Wonka reveals the real reason behind the contest…
In the wake of 2005’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (in which Depp played Wonka as an anti-social freak with a severe case of arrested development), it is interesting to see how much cooler Gene Wilder’s Wonka is. From his first appearance – walking feebly with a cain, then surprising everyone with an agile somersault – he reveals himself as a joyful Trickster who cannot be completely trusted. Whereas Depp’s Wonka seems barely able to cope with his guests, Wilder’s Candyman seems to be totally in control; one even suspects that the “accidents” befalling the naughty children may all be a part of his master-plan.
Gene Wilder is excellent in the title role. His bright blue eyes and wide smile give him the appearance of a perfectly appealing, whimsical father-figure substitute; thus, when Wonka’s eccentric characteristics show through, it is that much more of a shock. Wilder uses his manic energy to good effect, adding a subversive layer of danger to the character, who at times seems casually indifferent to the horrible fates suffered by the kids touring his factory—that is, when he is not deliberately tormenting them, as when he delivers an ominous series of rhymed couplets during the terrifying boat ride:
There’s no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going…
Not a speck of light is showing/Is the grisly reaper mowing?
This is one of the most memorable moments from the film (and one that was omitted from the remake, although there is a boat ride), and it makes sense in the story’s rather strict morality. Wonka may be a father-figure, but he is not one offering unconditional love and forgiveness. If you misbehave, something horrible will happen to you, and he won’t be the least bit sad about it. Only if you are a good little boy will you be given the key to the magic kingdom.
The supporting cast (including veteran character actors Jack Albertson and Roy Kinear) does a nice job of embodying Dahl’s weird caricatures. Peter Ostrum is quite good as the young, innocent child, the only good kid in the bunch taking the tour through the chocolate factory (this appears to be his only film role). But the standout among the children is Julie Dawn Cole, who is maybe too convincing as the spoiled brat Veruca Salt. She also gets one of the film’s best songs, “I Want It Now,” a sort of singing temper tantrum.
Unfortunately, most of the other musical numbers are not up to this quality. The songs are like a candy assortment: a few favorites along with some that are good and others that you would avoid if they weren’t mixed in with the rest. Part of the problem may not be the tunes themselves: Jack Albertson cannot really sing his big number midway through, and the opening number, “The Candy Man,” is far less lively in its film version than in the cover recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr.
Not only that, director Mel Stuart sometimes seems unsure what to do during songs. There is a separate credit for the staging of the musical numbers, but in several cases, there is little evidence that they have been staged; the actors simply walk around while lip-synching to the lyrics. Also, the placement of the songs is occasionally dubious: “The Candy Man” comes at the very beginning, before the audience has had a chance to fall into the movie’s universe, and stopping any forward momentum before it’s had a chance to start. The moment when Charlie finds the fifth Golden Ticket—an emotional highpoint that deserves a song—gets none, while the scene where Charlie’s grandfather gets out of bed does get a pointless musical number.
Many of the early scenes outside the chocolate factory fall flat. For a film that is supposed to be magical, there is little magical quality to the visual style: there is a stun-gun quality to some of the lighting and a point-and-shoot style to the camerawork, leaving the actors on their own to generate some interest with Dahl’s words.
Fortunately, things pick up once we get inside Wonka’s domain. The eye-popping production design takes over. The story’s wicked black humor kicks into gear, with the various obnoxious kids getting well-deserved comeuppances, while Wonka’s diminutive helpers, the orange-skinned Oompa-Loompas, reprise a song that states the story’s simple, fairy-tale morality. It’s all wonderfully colorful and imaginative, and filled with a multitude of references and jokes that will be understood only by adults (Wonka quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Coleridge). In the end, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY may not be a masterpiece on the level of THE WIZARD OF OZ, but it is a delight that deserves its place in the pantheon of family films that truly do appeal to the whole family, not just the young kids.
When Willy Wonka guides the tour through the room with the “Fizzy Lifting Drink,” he says, “Bubbles, bubbles everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” This is a paraphrase of a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” which goes “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” There are numerous other instances in the film where Wonka quotes classic literature and poetry that would be recognized by an educated adult but not by children.
Although author and screenwriter Roald Dahl wrote numerous children’s books (including CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CHARLIE AND THE GREAT GLASS ELEVATOR, and THE WITCHES), he was also a writer of adult fiction. His stock in trade was “tales of the unexpected,” usually with a wicked twist ending. Perhaps his most famous short story is “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which a woman murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks and serves it to the police investigating the crime, thus disposing of the murder weapon. Some of this wicked sensibility creeps into his children’s literature, which is what makes these books appeal to adults as well as kids.
The special edition DVD of WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTOR (released in 2004) features an audio commentary with all the “Wonka Kids,” four sing-along songs, an original theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.
WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY(1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl, from his novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Music & Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley. Cast: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinear, Julie Dawn Cole.