Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of those childhood classics that isn’t quite, a film that aspires to the whimsy and fantasy of The Wizard of Oz but somehow doesn’t really capture the magic.
Along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The 10,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Willy Wonka illustrates the distinct possibility of telling a fairy-tale like story about a child transported to a fantasy wonderland, with brightly costumed little people singing and dancing and strange dangers to be negotiated, yet winding up with a film that is more a fond tribute to "pure imagination" than a triumph of it.
The original Roald Dahl novel is called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but this film recognizes that although Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) is the protagonist, and is as decent and spunky as Dickens’ archetypal poor young hero Nicholas Nickleby, the story’s center of gravity is the "Candy Man" and his wonky world.
Though the film takes liberties with the book, the story of a mysterious, reclusive candy maker opening his factory to the five children lucky enough to find five much-coveted Golden Tickets hidden in his candy bars is Dahl’s, along the the film’s most memorable images and conceits (Charlie’s four grandparents permanently stationed at the four corners of their shared bed; the chocolate river churned by waterfall; Augustus Gloop sucked into one of the transparent conduits), wacky names (Everlasting Gobstoppers, Oompa-Loompas, Fizzy Lifting Drinks), and gleefully punitive morality-tale sensibility.
From some other place entirely, on the other hand, comes Gene Wilder’s detached, low-key take on Wonka, almost the antithesis of Dahl’s hyperactive gnome. Where Dahl likens Wonka to "a quick, clever old squirrel from the park," Wilder’s character is more like an inscrutable, capricious cat, quietly self-amused, politely disdainful, seemingly friendly but with ready claws. In fact, like Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, Wilder’s Wonka overtly embodies the Trickster archetype — a dimension of the character that isn’t entirely absent in the book but is much less emphatic.
The film softens Dahl’s story in some ways (Charlie here has a paper route and gets paid, a privilege beyond the wildest dreams of Dahl’s poorer-than-dirt hero) and sharpens it in others (the stern scene in which Wonka berates Charlie and throws him out of his study has no parallel in the book).
It also introduces a subplot in which Charlie and the other childen are approached by a mysterious stranger who introduces himself as Wonka’s chief competitor and tries to entice them into stealing one of Wonka’s top-secret new candies.
Curiously, although the stranger approaches all five children, only Charlie is actually put to the test and given the chance to choose whether or not to betray Wonka’s trust. The other four have by then long since been disqualified for breaking the rules — yet Charlie and Grandpa Joe have also broken the rules, but are given a chance to redeem themselves, a chance offered to none of the others. (Is this because Charlie is basically a good kid, while the others are rotten to the core? Or is it just sloppy storytelling?)
The first act is prolonged to the point of exhaustion, with interminable skits emphasizing over and over how very, very sought after the Golden Tickets are; by the time we actually get inside Wonka’s factory it’s a bit of an anti-climax. As a musical, the film has two good songs, "The Candy Man" and the "Oompa Loompa Song" (revisited several times with different lyrics), and a few forgettable ones.
Yet the casting is quite good, and the performances (Wonka aside) are all fine. Peter Ostrum, who never made another film, is a lovely Charlie, and Jack Albertson is splendid as Grandpa Joe. Among the supporting cast, Julie Dawn Cole in particular is indelible as the quintessential spoiled brat, Veruca Salt; hers is the one characterization from the first film that outshines her counterpart from the new Tim Burton film.
And no one but Burton could possibly have thought it would be a good idea to give candymaker extraordinaire Willy Wonka (Depp) unresolved issues from childhood stemming from a traumatic relationship with his dentist father (Christopher Lee!), leaving Wonka unable to say the words "family" or "parents," and subject to disorienting childhood flashbacks. When the book’s climax and denouement have played out, and the credits should be rolling any minute now, and the film suddenly invents additional obstacles to delay the hero’s reward, then cuts to a scene with the other most prominent character on a psychiatrist’s couch, can there be any doubt that the film has gone off the rails?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.