A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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June 3, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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