Paramount Pictures must still be beating themselves up for not renewing their distribution deal on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, following the 1971 film’s lukewarm reception at the box office. Warner Bros. was smart enough to pick it up in 1977, put it on television and VHS, and watch it grow into a children’s cult classic. Because this is a film made iconic by the home video market, it only fits that it finally makes its way to the Blu-ray format. The result is a finely produced set that enables the HD generation to revisit one of the most celebrated family musicals of all time.
What the 1971 film shares most with Roald Dahl’s original novel is the basic framework of the story, which follows the poor and earnest Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), who lives with his working class mother and four bedridden grandparents. He shares an especially close relationship with his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), who acts as a father figure for the struggling paperboy. When word gets out that legendary chocolate maker Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) is making his return from a mysterious absence by hiding five golden tickets in his chocolate bars, the world explodes in excitement at a chance to gain a tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.
Where the film diverges from the novel is the inclusion of highly choreographed musical numbers, with songs written by composers Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Many of these classics remain as vibrant now as they did then, if not more due to the high definition video and sound. “The Candy Man Can” pairs enjoyment of delicious candies with the hope of making the impossible possible, while the performance of “(I’ve Got a) Golden Ticket” is nothing short of uplifting. Of course, the true highlight and most memorable song is Wilder’s “Pure Imagination”, with a melody so effortlessly sweet that it has become synonymous with the film.
A good number of films that come from someone’s childhood tend to suffer from a nostalgia that blinds objectivity, but Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a truly respectful family film that doesn’t condescend to the children, and is mature enough to please adults. The recurring themes of class disparity, the condemnation of greed, and alienation caused by capitalist competition, give the film a distinct feeling of melancholy and at times, paranoia.
But while the characters from the novel come to life in humorous ways, often the film plays too much with stereotypes in trying to drive its points home. Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) is a snotty British brat, Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) is a television-obsessed Southwestern American, Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) is a portly and thick German boy, and Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson) is a loud and obnoxious American with a penchant for chewing gum. All four of these children are punished for their greed, gluttony, and selfishness, though it could be argued that they are being punished metaphorically for their economic statuses. Unlike them, Charlie is redeemed through an obvious working class bias running in the film.
Having written largely on thematic material and supporting characters, it’s about time the true star of the film is addressed, and that’s undoubtedly Wilder’s Willy Wonka. His Golden Globe nomination is well deserved, as you cannot take your eyes off his nuanced characterization of the eccentric chocolate maker. Whether it’s his curious non sequiturs or mischievous gestures, Wilder chews through each scene as if they were Everlasting Gobstoppers. This is certainly one of many career landmarks for him, with his sustained madness attracting the audience from his enigmatic entrance to the heartwarming end.
Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray treatment for the film is visually stunning, with colors popping boldly and the music sounding crisp. The technical updates give the 1971 film a modern feel, while production designer Harper Goff’s work on the kaleidoscopic chocolate room can be fully appreciated in 1080p. The litmus test for how much the film has benefitted from the upgrade to HD is the infamously disturbing boat ride scene, which feels much heavier than it originally did. And while memories of the Oompa-Loompas recall muddied brown pastels, now their makeup and outfits seem quite polished and striking.
The Blu-ray packaging for the film is one of the better ones released, made into a 38 page book with vivid production photos, lyrics to songs, and background information on Dahl and the cast and crew. None of the extras on the disc are new to this release, with a commentary by the former kids from the film, a documentary, various trailers and promos, and sing-alongs for four of the film’s songs. Needless to say this is a bit light on features compared to usual big studio offerings, but the documentary included is fairly informative.
Speaking with The Independent in 1990, Dahl said that, “Parents and school teachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing.” It is with this universal appeal of the innocence of childhood wonder that Dahl caters to with his lasting tale of hope and fulfillment. Dahl’s storytelling has never been as joyous as it is in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, and its representation in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is still the definitive way to enjoy it on screen.