|Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (30th Anniversary Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Monday, 20 June 2005|
Ever wonder where that peculiar, cheerful-to-the-point-of-being-scary song "The Candy Man" originated? No, it wasn’t written as the theme for the horror movie of that name – although, come to think of it, that would have been appropriately alarming. No, the tune was composed for "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," an offbeat 1971 musical factory based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
Charlie (Peter Ostrum) is a little American boy (although most of the neighbors are British) living with his hardworking widowed mother and his four bedridden grandparents. When it’s announced that legendary, secretive candy maker Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) is holding a contest to allow five lucky winners to tour his factory, with the tickets of admittance inside Wonka candy bars, the whole world goes wild trying to find the right ones. Charlie desperately desires to win, but his family is too poor to buy much candy. Four obnoxious kids win – and then so does Charlie, which so overjoys Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) that the old man gets up for the first time in 20 years to accompany his grandson on the tour.
What makes the movie (like the book that inspired it) so odd and memorable is the coexistence of ‘60s/’70s kiddie show cheer and genuine menace. On the one hand, you’ve got brightly colored sets, songs like "Candy Man," and a universe where winning a lifetime supply of Wonka chocolate is a worldwide obsession. On the other hand, horrific things happen to misbehaving children here – they turn into giant blueberries, are shrunk to tiny size and have to be stretched out, etc. – and there’s a sequence in a tunnel (in Chapter 27) that’s a full-on acid trip nightmare, with worms crawling over a man’s face and a chicken being decapitated.
The movie is also elevated into the realm of true inspiration by Wilder’s performance. Willy Wonka doesn’t show up until 45 minutes in, but when he does, it’s mesmerizing. Suddenly, we are in Monty Python territory, with a character deeply faithful to an internal barometer evident only to himself. Wilder’s Wonka can go from hearty charm to barely breathing bland sarcasm to spitting frenzy without skipping a beat. This character could do anything, at any moment – and here he is, strolling through a meadow of giant lollipops, wielding a walking cane like a song-and-dance man – who, at moments, seems to be contemplating wielding the device as an S&M toy. Wilder’s command of his timing is awe-inspiring. (Judging by a lot of similar comedy work that has come in the decades since, he seems to have inspired imitation as well as awe in many quarters.)
While there’s nothing here (except, arguably, the dead chicken) to counter the spirit of the G rating, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" is not the winsome, toothless fluff the advertising suggests. Director Mel Stuart and the script, credited to author Dahl, have satire that runs hot and cold, broad and subtle, from start to finish. Small children can enjoy the movie at face value while older children and grown-ups will see a lot of hidden, more sophisticated humor. If your kids do get all the jokes, it’s definitely time to start them on "Monty Python’s Flying Circus."
The widescreen DVD comes from a beautifully clean and clear print. The 30-year-old movie does have distinctive ‘70s relatively low-budget lighting, but the plentiful colors are consistently, gratifyingly vivid. Visual clarity is extremely good. There’s excellent contrast between (intentionally) bad TV reception and the crystal-clear surrounding action in Chapter 10. Chapter 32 has hundreds of visually discrete, iridescent bubbles floating around, each preserving a myriad of hues. A sequence in Chapter 36 when "a million bits" of an object are whooshing around in the air overhead gives us all the tiny pieces twinkling over the characters’ heads with no bleeding or fragmentation is particularly impressive.
The soundtrack is in 5.1 in the sense that the rears are loyally providing a softer version of the music in the mains, with dialogue and vocals in the center track, but (probably wisely, given the nature of the original track) there’s no attempt to provide directional effects or acoustically place the listener in the environment. Chapter 30 has some good, solid machine sounds and Chapter 31 has some very realistic footsteps and scuffling of shoe soles on the floor. In other words, sound reproduction of the ambient effects is fine. The songs in Chapters 2, 12, 19, 23, 25, 30, 33, 34, 37 and 40 have an old-fashioned feel, but this is due more to orchestration (strings tend not to be used this way any more) than any failing of the mix. The songs do have a slightly distant audio quality, but again, this is consistent with a ‘70s musical soundtrack.
There are a lot of agreeable extras on the DVD, including a newly-made retrospective featurette that allows us to contrast the five main child actors, including Ostrum, with their adult selves. Director Mel Stuart, uncredited screenwriter David Seltzer (he rewrote a script by original author Dahl), producer David L. Wolper and actor Wilder also have lively, informative comments. The audio commentary track features the five now-grown child actors, reuniting to watch the movie together for the first time in 30 years and clearly having a good time with it.
In some ways, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," with its tale of a little boy admitted to a secret and magical world, will remind people of "Harry Potter" (yes, it should really be the other way round, as "Charlie" came first, but given the "Harry" phenomenon, there’s a good chance that he’ll be the character many people encounter first). "Wonka" lacks "Harry’s" empathy and sense of conviction. The film has the sly, surreal menace of Lewis Carroll lurking amidst the general sunny sentiments of the film version of "Mary Poppins." Even available everywhere on DVD, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" retains a slight air of mystery with just a hint of the sinister. It’s the kind of movie that hangs in your memory for ages. If you did see it once as a kid and have only vague memories of it now, it’s worth watching again – for Wilder’s performance, for its strange tonal blend and to remind you how and why the words "vermicious knid" entered your vocabulary.