WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

(1971)
With Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole, Denise Nickerson, Paris Theman, Michael Bollner, Roy Kinnear, Dodo Denny, Günter Meisner
Directed by Mel Stuart
Reviewed by JB

Pure imagination     Of all my favorite movies made from classic children's books, 1971's WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is the most disturbing.  Though the film is colorful, funny and sweet at times, Gene Wilder's off-center portrayal of the title character keeps the viewers on edge throughout.  From his initial appearance (the details of which I will not spoil for you)  to his shocking outburst of anger toward the end of the film, Wilder never allows us a hint as to whether Willy Wonka, candy maker extraordinaire, is simply play-acting or if he is truly a mentally disturbed individual who's been living alone in his factory a bit too long.

     The most disquieting scene of the film is the extremely psychotropic ride on the Wonkatania, a boat which runs on the river of chocolate.  With bizarre images back-projected behind the actors (a worm crawling on a man's face, a chicken being beheaded) and Wonka working himself into a demonic frenzy while reciting a poem, the scene resembles nothing less than a very bad acid trip.

     WILLY WONKA captures Gene Wilder's most sustained burst of brilliance.  An extremely affable screen actor, Wilder will always be remembered for his turns in Mel Brooks' comedies, especially YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and THE PRODUCERS, and his work with screen partner Richard Pryor in a series of good-natured comedies, but his Willy Wonka just may be his best performance ever.  It is surely his most intriguing.    

    Like Daniel Radcliffe in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, there is some quality about young Peter Ostrum - his complete ordinariness? - that makes his Charley instantly appealing within seconds.  It seems a shame that such a kid didn't stay in the business, though, apparently it was his own choice and he eventually settled into a happy life as a vetirinarian. The rest of the children in the cast are all good, especially Julie Dawn Cole as vicious spoiled brat Veruca Salt.  The producers must have felt that had a winner in this kid, because she is the only one besides Ostrum who gets her own song, the appropriately titled "I Want It Now!".

     The movie was made to promote a candy that was to be called The Wonka Bar, hence the change of the title from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The Wonka Bar lasted about five minutes.  The movie, though not a huge hit in its day, has had enough TV exposure over the years to become a cult classic, one that will still be with us for years. It also features an underrated soundtrack (written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) which includes the classic "The Candy Man" (a big hit for Sammy Davis Jr.), the Oompa Loompa song, and my favorite, "Pure Imagination", sung sweetly by Wilder. 4 - JB

Fantasy     The Secret Vortex


REMAKES

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)