By Michael Kaye
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (Review)
I'm not going to make a habit out of writing reviews for every single actor or director who has recently passed away, but I'm making an exception for one of my all time favorites. On August 30th, 2016, the world lost one of its greatest talents to Alzheimers, Mr. Gene Wilder. He's best known for his incredibly hilarious collaborations with Mel Brooks on films such as Young Frankenstein, The Producers and Blazing Saddles, as well as comedian Richard Pryor in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. But my first exposure to the man was in the classic 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Mel Stuart.
Here's the story, based on Roald Dahl's children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Eccentric candy man Willy Wonka prompts a worldwide frenzy when he announces that golden tickets hidden inside five of his delicious candy bars will admit their lucky holders into his top-secret confectionary. But does Wonka have an agenda hidden amid a world of Oompa Loompas and chocolate rivers?
I used to watch this movie all the time when I was younger, but it's been a few years since my latest revisit. However, after watching it again tonight, I can safely say that the film still holds up incredibly well. Is it a little dated? Sure. Is the best adaptation of the source material? Probably not. Do I care? Hell no! With all that out of the way, here are some of the highlights.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
First off, the cast is amazing, and I'm not just talking about Gene Wilder. Peter Ostrum plays Charlie, surprisingly the only time he's ever appeared on film. I'm not gonna lie and say he was a great child actor, but he did give a very naturalistic performance, which is kind of important for a film that centers around children. All he wants is a better life for his poor family, and their ticket is, well, the Golden Ticket. I like the portrayal of the other 4 kids as well, including Paris Themmen as Mike Teevee, Julie Dawn Cole as Varuca Salt, Denise Nickerson as Violet Beauregarde, and Michael Bollner as Augustus Gloop. But that's enough stalling, time to get to the main event, the one actor who makes this film endlessly rewatchable, and that's Gene Wilder's show stopping performance as Willy Wonka. This might just be the most perfect casting decision of all time, as Wilder completely embodied everything that was great about the character. He had the perfect blend of warmth, charisma, unpredictability, sarcasm, and wonderful comedic timing. The delivery on each of his reactions to the kids misbehaving was just priceless.
This is a musical, so I might as well address that now. The songs were composed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, with musical direction by Walter Scharf, and honestly, what can I say about this music that hasn't already been said? My whole appreciation for music, specifically musicals, comes from growing up with movies like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and this one in constant rotation, as well of course as the Disney Renaissance films. Songs like "The Candy Man Can," "Pure Imagination" and each of the "Oompa Loompa" variations have been deeply ingrained into my sub conscience.
Mel Stuart did a fantastic job directing this movie, right down to the most mouthwatering opening sequence, showing the audience exactly how chocolate is made. Fun fact, there is a real Willy Wonka Candy Company, which was founded the same year that the film was released, and is now owned by Nestlé. Advertising doesn't get much better than that, now does it? All the visuals in the film are beautiful, especially for the early 70's. The one scene that will always stick with me, and may or may have scared the shit out of a few children, is the horrific boat ride through the tunnel. It's a complete departure from the tone of the rest of the film, but Gene Wilder gives 110% commitment to that scene, which makes it all the more entertaining.
Finally, there's the screenplay, started by Roald Dahl, but finished by David Seltzer, who remains uncredited. Dahl was not pleased at all with the changes made to the source material, specifically the over emphasis on Willy Wonka as opposed to Charlie, the added subplot with Slugworth as a spy, and the "fizzy lifting drink" scene. Now, Dahl is completely entitled to his opinion, and I have nothing but respect for the man as a writer. But here's the thing, much like The Shining takes a lot of liberties with its source material, the changes in my opinion made for a better movie. It's funny, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of my favorite films of all time and it's a loose adaptation of the book, while conversely, Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is closer to the book, yet it's one of my least favorite films. Two different extremes, but they both prove the point that an adaptation does not need to be a slave to its source material to still make a good movie.
I love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I always have, and I always will. I'm going to miss Gene Wilder, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family, including his widow Karen Boyer. Thank you for all your many contributions to the film industry, from your show stopping performance as Willy Wonka to some of the greatest parody films like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.
Now I want to hear from you guys. Have you seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and if so what did you think? Also, what were some of your favorite Gene Wilder performances? Drop your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for my next review, which pits The Dude against Captain Kirk in the latest Western heist thriller Hell or High Water!