In the wake of Gene Wilder’s tragic passing, I thought I would pay tribute to this great artist by reviewing one of his most beloved films…the immortal family classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This film may have been something of a sleeper classic, but it has gradually come to be regarded as one of the all-time classics of the film musical genre. In a way, even the continual attempts to reinvent the wheel by remaking this film in one form or another just stand as a compliment to its achievement.
These attempts to remake it are often based on the attempted justification than Roald Dahl himself hated this movie, but those who tell that narrative nearly always leave out a key detail—Dahl never actually saw this movie. He just somehow got the idea that it had kiddified his book (apparently by reading an early draft of the script) and refused to ever watch it to find out if that was actually true. (This was not at all out of character for Dahl: he was a crabby old control freak who never really liked any of the film adaptations of his work…although to be fair, apart from this one and the James and the Giant Peach movie, most of them did merit some disappointment).
In reality, the film sticks very close to Dahl’s plot apart from a few key changes, and nearly all of the darker content of the book made it into the film completely intact. It’s been pointed out that Dahl was essentially a children’s horror author, somewhat in the same vein as R.L. Stine, albeit infinitely more talented. And the film retains that feel, combining whimsical charm with some of the most nightmarish scenes ever seen in a kid’s movie. True, because of the film’s surprisingly low budget, some of the special effects are a little cheap by modern standards, but the film’s atmosphere and sense of imagination help create the effects that the movie can’t always show.
The truth is that this film is actually a significant improvement over Dahl’s novel. Dahl saw morality in very negative terms….good as the absence of bad…and in his book, Charlie earns his happy ending simply by being the only child in the story without any odious bad habits. The movie created a scenario by which Charlie could actually prove his moral worth by action, rather than by default. The result is an ending that is far more moving and rewarding, and a main character who is a fully realized and realistic person, rather than the blank cipher of the novel. Apart from those indisputable improvements, the only major change is replacing the squirrels in the Veruca segment with geese because ‘bad egg’ is the American equivalent of the British expression ‘bad nut’.
The music, of course, is a large part of what made the film so iconic…it really is a musical through and through, and Broadway veterans Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse gave it a more sophisticated sound than the Sherman brothers were giving other live action kid’s movies of the time such as Mary Poppins. The most recognizable numbers are the smash Pop hit “The Candyman”, the exquisitely beautiful ballad “Pure Imagination”, and the repeating, eerily whimsical numbers for the Oompa-Loompas, which become more ominous-sounding with each repetition. But all the film’s songs are classics…even the oft-dismissed “(I’ve Got a) Golden Ticket” is a thrillingly jubilant delight.
It’s worth noting that Sammy Davis, jr., who had an enormous hit with his rendition of “The Candy Man”, wanted to sing the song in the actual film. And while at first glance this seems like a criminal case of missed opportunity, I have to say that I understand why they decided against it. The character who sings this song is essentially a walk-on, appearing in that one scene and then essentially disappearing apart from one later scene where he has only about five lines. This would have meant that the biggest name in the film would have come on for the opening scene and then vanished for the rest of the film, which would have unbalanced an otherwise perfectly balanced film. True, it would have made that one scene immeasurably better, but it would also have given the film as a whole its only real flaw, so I understand their decision regarding the matter.
Of course, the real star turn in the film turned out to be Gene Wilder’s genius-level turn as Willy Wonka. His take on the character is much subtler and more nuanced than the hyperactive Wonka of Dahl’s book, but he preserved the character’s defining trait…his utter unpredictability. Depending on what is called for in each scene, he can be paternal and loving, quietly creepy, or outright terrifying, but regardless, you never really know what he’s thinking or what exactly he really means by the cryptic comments he makes. And Wilder’s rendition of the ballad “Pure Imagination” is one of the most rapturous deliveries of a song in any musical of any kind.
Peter Ostrum leaves something to be desired as Charlie, but because he had an actual character to play, he’s actually much more effective than the more talented Freddie Highmore was in the same part in the Tim Burton remake. The rest of the cast is generally excellent, with Jack Albertson’s crusty but lovable Grandpa Joe and the young actors playing the bratty kids scoring particularly strongly, but Wilder unquestionably steals the show…more, he is the show, defining the artistic style for the entire movie.
Amazingly, this film was not really a success when it was first released…it made a small profit because of its low budget, and the music got an Oscar nomination, but as hard as it is to imagine now, it was considered at the time to be a severe critical and commercial disappointment. Like a lot of classic kids’ movies from that era, it really gained its full popularity from being shown on television, which is somewhat ironic, considering that Dahl’s hatred of that medium is built into both the book and the movie.
In any case, the film has become popular enough to inspire at least two high-profiles remakes (the appalling Tim Burton film version and the current disappointing stage adaptation), but the fact is that no-one will ever surpass this version of the material, and they would be wiser to stop trying. This film still stands as perhaps the finest live-action kids’ movie of all time (its only real competition comes from a few of the Muppet movies), and even if it were the only legacy of greatness Wilder had left behind (which it is emphatically not, as the man’s work with Mel Brooks alone would make him a legend), it would still be enough to guarantee him immortality.