‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’: Pass the Gobstoppers!

In the notorious German fable, Der Struwelpeter, a disobedient boy suffers the horrific fate of having his fingers scissored off by a remorseless harlequin, and similarly cruel fates befall many who dance to their own drummer in other early morality plays, some of which would be compiled by the Grimm brothers, on their way to becoming childhood staples. The late Roald Dahl, distinguished writer of children’s stories, perhaps had these in mind when when writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about an impoverished boy who witnesses assorted scofflaw brats come to grief as they flout the rules while touring a theme park-like candy mill. Although no youngsters are maimed or killed, punishment is definitely meted out, and Mel Stuart’s 1971 film adaptation of the book, re-dubbed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, doesn’t shrink from such moral rigidity.

I can’t recall when I first ‘discovered’ Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but I lapped it up on television during my Gen X formative years, and it immediately struck a chord, which it still tugs at today. I do regret missing it on the big screen during its 25th anniversary re-release in 1997, but I’ve since been to an outdoor showing – projected against a brick wall-mounted screen in an alley – and I sat at rapt attention, despite the chilly evening air.

For those unfamiliar with this film – can such unfortunate souls exist? — it’s a classic fable of a destitute but honest, industrious youth (yes, it all sounds very saccharine) who is rewarded beyond his wildest dreams simply by doing the right thing.

The “youth” in question is the proletarian-named Charlie Bucket, played here by relative newcomer Peter Ostrum, who had previously distinguished himself in local theater in his native Cleveland, and who could be more baseball-hot dogs-apple pie-Chevrolet than an Ohioan? Indeed, the towheaded Ostrum is the epitome of the soulful, yearning boy-next-door. One almost expects to see Lassie trotting faithfully beside him. Charlie seems to be the only poor kid at his school, and of course that manipulates us into supporting him, the prototypical underdog protagonist.

The Bucket homestead is a rustic wooden shack, completely at odds with its more cosmopolitan-classical surroundings, and more reminiscent of the Clampett house of “The Beverly Hillbillies” than anything else. The fact that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was shot almost entirely in Munich only lends to the general incongruity. No municipal name – or country, for that matter – is ever mentioned, and Mel Stuart insisted that he wanted the Buckets’ neighborhood to seem like anywhere.

So… the thoroughly American Buckets exist in an unnamed metropolis, with distinctly medieval European architecture, and even stranger, a hodgepodge of English, German, and American accents, something I took no notice of as a child, but which now elicits a chuckle. This sort of cross-cultural mishmash – common in productions funded by non-Hollywood sources – is often unwieldy in more realistic films, but here accentuates our sense of being in an alternate environment.

When it’s revealed that the title character has released five Golden Tickets – only to be found wrapped alongside a Wonka chocolate bar – the global craze to find the tickets ensues. You see, the winner will receive a lifetime supply of chocolate from the Wonka factory, which they’ll also get to explore, and, apparently, that’s priority numero uno for all, young and old. In fact, one TV reporter muses that there must be more important world issues to discuss, but “offhand, I can’t think of what”.

Behind my laughter, I can’t help taking a fairly cynical tack on these proceedings. Of course, Wonka (a maniacal Gene Wilder) stands to increase his fortune exponentially through extra sales of his already beloved bars, so we wonder if manipulative corporate greed has intruded on the sanctity of FairyTaleLand. And what’s with Charlie’s specious claim that he deserves to win because “I want it more.” What on earth does that mean? More than whom? And how does one quantify that?

Still, I’m forced to admit that Charlie is more deserving than the insufferable brats who score tickets before him. There’s Veruca Salt(Julie Dawn Cole), a strident, greedy harridan who badgers her indulgent father (Roy Kinnear) incessantly, Violet Beauregard (Denise Nickerson), a sassy, gum-snapper who’s really just a less obnoxious version of Veruca, and Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), eternally smitten with television, thus glued to the tube all day.

The film’s portrayal of the final child, Augustus Gloop, is more troubling. Augustus clearly represents the archaic media stereotype of the insatiable Fat Boy – and it’s always a boy – who’s perpetually hungry and disinterested in anything but mealtime. Although we’re told – in song – that Gloop’s parents are to blame for his obesity and gluttony, it’s Augustus himself who suffers an unpleasant comeuppance after drinking from a chocolate river sans permission. But did anyone tell him not to? After all, the kids and their accompanying parents do partake of all the edible treats in Wonka’s Chocolate Room – arguably a pinata taken to its logical extreme and the American Dental Association’s most vivid nightmare – so why not sip from this Hersheyesque tributary? In this sequence, the film wants to have its cake and eat it too, pun firmly intended.

Throughout, Wonka himself seems to relish the moments in which rule-breakers run into trouble, and this is what turned some parents and critics against the film when it premiered in 1971. There is an element of gleeful sadism in Wilder’s characterization, and this lends a subtle edge to the tale, a sort of gentle anarchy which ironically makes WW more appealing to most viewers. How dare this impudent Pied Piper take pleasure in the unhappiness of defenseless youngsters! But the film would be less memorable with a kinder, gentler Wonka, and we remember fondly his sarcasm in the same way we embrace the snarky deviousness of the Grinch in Chuck Jones’ venerable Yuletide special How The Grinch Stole Christmas. One might also think of producer Sid Davis’ now-campy postwar mental hygiene films, which took a decidedly unsentimental view of children who acted contrary to their better judgement. Occasionally, these wayward souls wound up in the cemetery.

And Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is unquestionably Gene Wilder’s show. From his duplicitous grand entrance to the ‘warning’ he gives Charlie in the final scene, Wilder is absolutely in his element, and he spoils you for anyone else in the role – sorry, Johnny Depp, but your lifeless Michael Jackson impersonation in the CGI-heavy 2005 remake just doesn’t cut the mustard. Wilder portrays Wonka as a sarcastic ringmaster, the true Mad Hatter, and that’s not the only similarity to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. In the film’s denouement, Wilder clearly savors a scenery-chewing Oscarbait moment, shrieking with rage at Charlie’s Grandpa Joe(a magnificent Jack Albertson). Wilder deliberately withheld this vitriol until filming began because he wanted Ostrum to seem genuinely shocked, and I think he elicits the same response from us, the audience.

Wilder even sings, and although he’ll never impress Simon Cowell, his rendition of “Pure Imagination” always melts me. The song, composed by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, has since become a pop standard, recorded by Lou Rawls, Vanessa Williams, Maroon 5, et al, and its shimmering choral lilt is unforgettable. Wilder croons it when his guests first enter the Chocolate Room, and it’s the perfect introduction to his breathtaking candy works.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t originally conceived as a musical, but producer David Wolper (Roots) coerced Stuart into incorporating a few songs, and it’s difficult to imagine the film without them. Julie Dawn Cole’s “I Want It Now”, dripping with gimme-gimme insolence, is a standout, as well as the cheerful “The Candyman”, later covered by Sammy Davis, Jr., becoming the biggest pop success of his career. Less renowned is the gentle ballad “Cheer Up, Charlie”, and wouldn’t it be great if the makers of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts animated specials had licensed this tune? I can think of no better song to summarize the trials and tribulations of his long-suffering Charlie Brown.

Extras? “You want extras? I give you extras!” A veritable suitcase full! For those of us who still read non-electronic text, there’s a making-of booklet nearly 130 pages in length(!) — hey, that’s a novella!, a copy of the contest bulletin which Wonka released to the public, a sheet of casting choices for the title role(with James Cagney and Donald Pleasance(!) inexplicably among the possibles, and production notes circulated between the producers and creative talent. By the way, all of the above comes in a handsome purple-and-gold, logo-embossed envelope.

Also included are a set of four brightly-coloured pencils, accompanied by a eraser, and encased in a metal container designed to resemble a wrapped Wonka bar. If that cornucopia doesn’t fill you up, we also receive a souvenir Golden Ticket, which makes me wish there actually was a Wonka chocolate works to visit, and I can’t imagine that someone hasn’t already dreamed of creating such a theme park.

As for the discs themselves, the package contains three: a standard DVD, a Blu-Ray edition, and one chock-a-block with bonuses, mostly featurettes, including the superfluous “A World of Pure Imagination”, filmed in the ’70s and quite redundant after watching the others. Another short doc shot in the ’70s spotlights the talents and contributions of noted set designer Harper Goff, who garnered Oscars for Fantastic Voyage and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The lengthiest of the bunch is “Pure Imagination”, with numerous juicy details, such as the revelation that Sammy Davis, Jr allegedly yearned to playthe Candyman, Quaker Oats footed the production costs, and Mel Stuart’s daughter first suggested filming Dahl’s book.

There’s also “Mel Stuart’s Wonkavision”, which closely examines the life of this prolific documentarian, and interviews his now-grown children, both of which had bit parts in the film. Towards the end, Stuart unveils the original top hat Wilder sported onscreen.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains an utterly charming fantasia, an amusing pop-fizz pastiche of Lewis Carroll, Seussian lunacy, and ’60s Swinging London psychedelia, filtered through the acerbic world view of Roald Dahl, who enjoyed some success as a screenwriter apart from this project. It also borrows heavily from the Grimms, whose collected tales were about societal limits, and the sometimes tragic demise of those who sought to transcend them. It doesn’t always resist ideological or intellectual scrutiny, but it was crafted in an era less politically-correct, though more creative, than our retro-obsessed new millenium.

Wonka’s final words to Charlie, “Remember what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted? He lived happily ever after.”, seem to endorse, however unwittingly, a rapacious materialism which trumps any other considerations. Does the story occasionally lapse into hypocrisy? Perhaps, but I’ll forgive anything so sinfully delicious. Pass the Gobstoppers!

RATING 8 / 10