A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 460 – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – June 3rd, 2011

I’ve been trying to whittle down the remaining list of movies we own that I haven’t seen. When we started this project it was a vast number. I think I’d seen maybe 60% of what we owned. And when we started out I wasn’t paying particular attention to distributing what I’d seen and what I hadn’t evenly amongst our days. Now I make an effort. And out of the 150 or so movies left, there’s a 20 movie gap in favor of what I’ve seen. So I think I can afford an old favorite or two before we go popping in things that will make me angry or annoyed. And tonight, after a long day of prodding HTML into shape at work, I needed an old favorite. Something comforting and familiar and fun. This fit the bill perfectly.

We actually purchased this after we purchased the remake with Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore. While I’d seen it numerous times – enough to know most of the songs by heart and have some lines in my daily reference lexicon – we hadn’t ever gotten around to buying it. This happens in our collection. It’s led to some awkward holes. I mean, we still don’t own Clerks for some reason I can’t fathom. So strange. But I purposefully set out to get this after be got the remake and I realized I didn’t want to watch it without watching this first. I’ll get to talk about the remake tomorrow but tonight belongs to the classic.

I don’t recall when I first saw this movie but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t at home. Perhaps at a friend’s house at a sleepover or something. I really don’t know. What I do know is that I was utterly captivated by Gene Wilder in it. And that I had a Grandpa Joe of my own, and missed him terribly by the time I saw this movie (he died when I was very young) and while he didn’t really look anything like Jack Albertson, I couldn’t help but connect them in my head. So I loved this movie and not just for the wonders inside Wonka’s factory. I mean, I loved those too, but the set-up drew me in first. Charlie with his impoverished life where a loaf of bread means a feast, suddenly winning one of five rare chances to go inside a magical candy factory? That’s a great hook!

Now, I’m going to admit something that’s as close to heresy as I can get in my profession: I’m not really all that enamored of Roald Dahl. I’m sorry, okay? I like my fantasy with a little less whimsy. They’re fun stories and all, but there was always something about his books that didn’t quite click for me. The movie adaptations are hit-or-miss. I really love this movie but I’m not at all fond of James and the Giant Peach and I could take or leave The Witches. So going into this movie it’s not that I have any particular love for the book. It’s just that I really enjoy the performances of the cast here. Gene Wilder deserves special mention and I’ll get to him in a moment, but really, I love all the children who play the five lead roles. Only one of them (Julia Dawn Cole, who played Veruca) seems to have kept on in the acting business, but they all did lovely jobs here. And of course Jack Albertson was fantastic as Grandpa Joe.

But then there’s Gene Wilder. The thing I truly love about Wilder is his ability to portray quiet wildness. He can give a perfectly reasonable look, sitting as calmly as you please, and still give the impression of barely restrained glee or panic. It imbues this particular character with an unpredictability that really suits him. And while the IMDB trivia claims that Wilder made Wonka unpredictable on purpose, I think he couldn’t have helped but do so. The combination of the character with Wilder’s strange calm energy was going to work towards that anyhow. It was an excellent bit of casting and I honestly don’t know if anyone else at the time could have made Wonka as iconic as Wilder did. I can picture other people in the role, but not playing it the way Wilder did and it’s the performance choices and the energy that make the character for me. Which in turn is what makes the movie for me.

Not that there’s not plenty more to enjoy about the movie. It’s just that without Wilder as Wonka I think it just would have been fun but not necessarily magical. It would have been a nice little children’s fantasy musical with a whole lot of candy and that would have been that. Perfectly enjoyable. But it turned out to be more than that. To be honest, I could do without a couple of the songs. Cheer Up Charlie slows the movie to a crawl for me and it could be excised and I’d never miss it. I mean, the songs aren’t the highlight of the movie for me. They do keep the pace up in many parts, and a few of them are pretty good earworms. I’ve Got a Golden Ticket will get stuck in my head whenever this movie crosses my desk at work. The various Oompa Loompa songs have some great little snarky lines in them. But the draw for me is the build-up to the factory tour and then the reveal, Wonka included.

I do enjoy the sense of humor this movie has. It’s really pretty sharp in places, meant as much for adult amusement as for kids. The whole bit with the search for the five golden tickets that will allow the finders to tour Wonka’s factory? It’s a great bit of worldbuilding and the way it’s done, with high-priced auctions and kidnapping with Wonka bars demanded as ransom? Brilliantly over the top. And it very neatly establishes Charlie as quite set apart from everyone else. He’s not opening hundreds of Wonka bars to look for the tickets. He opens a total of four over the course of the movie. And this is in a world where Willy Wonka and his mysterious factory have casino owners forging tickets to get a peek.

Once inside the factory is where the real fun starts. I figure most kids who see this would like to be let loose in the garden at the start of the factory tour. Who wouldn’t want to pluck a gummi bear down off a tree or eat peppermint grass? It just seems like so much fun. So much horribly unsanitary fun. Not that anything in the factory is supposed to be at all realistic. After all, this is a place that churns its chocolate by waterfall. It has hallucinatory boat rides and coat hangers shaped like hands that actually grab your coat. Safety precautions? Who cares about safety precautions when there’s lickable snozzberry wallpaper?

Now, I will say that the villain arc and the way it figures into the ending only sort of works for me, but I’m okay with it overall. I mean, it’s not so huge a part of the plot that enough time is devoted to it that I feel could have been better spent elsewhere. The movie shows us just enough of Charlie’s life beforehand and the world he lives in, then jumps into the wondrous factory and all that it contains. The villain arc is more a tool than a plot and I can deal with that. It doesn’t detract from the fun or the magic, and those are what make this movie enjoyable. It had been some time between when I’d last seen this and when I first saw the remake, so I’m curious to see how the remake will hold up tomorrow after having so much fun watching this tonight.

June 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

June 3, 2011

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

This movie is a strange, unsettling, and wondrous unique gem. Much like the confectionery magician Mr. Wonka himself.

I had not realized until watching this tonight that the first draft of the screenplay for this movie was actually written by Roald Dahl. I guess I had just always had it in my head that this film was such a departure from the book, and I knew of Mr. Dahl’s legendary disdain for the final product. Even the title of the movie doesn’t match that of the book. I was surprised when during the opening credits it declared that he had done the screenplay as well as the book the movie is based on.

I have so many memories and associations that blend together when I’m watching this movie. I remember how creepy and disturbing I found the movie on my first viewing of it on television in the early eighties when I was eight or nine years old. Particularly how much the capering of the orange and green Oompa Loompas fueled my nightmares. I have fond memories of re-discovering the movie in my teenage years when I had a chance to watch it on VHS and begin to appreciate it for the insane genius that it is. Of course most of all I remember growing to completely love Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the mad genius himself.

This is, after all, his movie. We don’t even get to see Willy Wonka until the movie is a third over, but Wilder’s performance is so mesmerising, so charming, so sinister that he overshadows everything else. This movie isn’t Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – it’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s a movie that celebrates a crazy man who lives in his own fantasy world creating unique and somewhat mad inventions for children. In truth that’s pretty much how I picture Roald Dahl himself. I always imagine him in my head with a giant Salvadore Dali mustache (I know he looked more like the illustrations of the BFG, it must be the last name similarity that does it.) There’s one segment of this movie – during the Wonkatania journey through the dark tunnel – where random and unsettling images are projected behind the actors and it reminds me of nothing so much as Un Chien Andalou. In my mind the three insane geniuses, Wilder’s Wonka, Dahl and Dali, blend through this movie and become almost reflections of each-other.

Need I sum up the plot? I would hope that most people were pretty familiar with at least one form of this story by now be it the book or one of the two movie versions. Young and destitute Charlie Bucket has been raised by his Grandpa Joe with tales of the amazing Willy Wonka and his maddeningly secret chocolate factory where nobody ever goes in or comes out and the most amazingly impossible confectionery creations are constructed. One day it is announced that Mr. Wonka will actually allow five lucky people (each to be accompanied by a family member) to visit his factory and win a lifetime supply of chocolate. The winners will be those lucky enough to find five golden tickets hidden inside Wonka branded candy bars.

The first third or so of the movie details the mania stirred up by the golden tickets and Charlie’s sad life of desperate poverty. (As an aside: I have always said that I felt J.K. Rowling cribbed the start of the first Harry Potter book from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The lives of young Charlie Bucket and young Harry Potter are full of similar extremes with Charlie’s four grandparents sharing a single bed in his one room house while Harry is living with the spiders under the stairs. Even Rowling’s writing style at the start of the Potter series reminds me of Dahl’s prose.) Each of the five lucky tickets is found by a different child, with Charlie being the last of course.

Then the rest of the movie is the tour of the chocolate factory itself which is an utterly insane wonderland of fantastical inventions and OSHA violations. It’s a kind of strange morality tale where each of the children suffers a grizzly fate as a result of their particular vices. There’s an over-eater, a gum chewer, a spoiled brat and a TV obsessed couch potato. (The impact of the moral is somewhat lessened in this particular telling since Charlie and his Grandpa Joe also succumb to temptation and ignore Wonka’s sage advice at one point. I’ve never liked that about this movie.)

There’s so much that is magical about this movie though. I watched it tonight with an eye towards trying to figure out what portions of the script were Dahl’s, and his signature is all over the movie if you’re looking for it. Particularly in the first half of the movie I felt his dry sense of humor in many of the television news casts following the fervor created by the golden tickets. There are several sort of short stories intended to show just how obsessed people have become over Wonka bars – such as the last case of bars in the UK being auctioned off or the woman whose husband has been kidnapped and is being ransomed for her unopened Wonka bar collection. These felt very much like the kind of twisted thing that I associate with Roald Dahl.

When Gene Wilder finally shows up on the screen though, after all that build up, he effortlessly takes command and from there on out it is his movie. Yes, the chocolate factory is mad and wonderous. Yes the Oompa Loompas are strange and disturbing. Yes, the young actors portraying the five children area ll quite impressive. It is Gene Wilder however, with his classic transformations from restrained to manic, that makes the movie what it is.

I won’t say that the film is without flaw. The songs sometimes make the movie too cloying for me and hurt the overall pacing. (Particularly the candy man song and the long song Charlie’s mother sings.) The special effects of the day (1971) are not particularly special, and the sets, although clever, are clearly held back by budgetary restraints. (The exception to both these issues is the “World of your Imagination” song in the spectacular candy wonderland set with its river of chocolate, giant gummi bear trees and edible flowers and lollipops. That’s the high point of the whole movie for me.) I hate to harp on it the Oompa Loompas are simply terrifying, and nothing at all like how they are described in the book. (Although the pygmies described in the book probably would raise a whole other slew of issues.)

Those issues cannot prevent this movie from being simply wonderful though. There just are not many cautionary tale/musicals for children out there. And certainly not many with performances as captivating and entertaining as Gene Wilder’s here. It was a treat to watch this again tonight, and I’m looking forward to watching the Tim Burton re-make tomorrow.

June 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment