When I was five years old, my favourite movie was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I didn’t own the official version on VHS, but had what I felt was the next best thing: a taped recording of the film, sans commercials, which had aired on the Disney Channel. My memories of living in suburban Richmond Hill as a child are not plentiful. (I moved southward to the city when I was six.) Nevertheless, I fondly recall curling up on the floor in a frigid basement and basking in the film’s glorious glow. Even though the paleness of the image from the 13-inch television did little to make the film’s colours pop, it didn’t matter. I likely watched Willy Wonka close to 100 times before the age of six, at the rate of about once a week.
It’d been more than a decade since I revisited Mel Stuart’s sugar coated family comedy and I was more than a bit hesitant to watch the film again. Could such a potent piece of popular culture from my childhood still resonate? Could it stand out in a double feature, alongside Tim Burton’s splashier, pricier adaptation from 2005?
It was gratefully satisfying to discover that the film is like an everlasting gobstopper: still potent many years later. Verbal and visual puns accumulate quickly in its second half, set at the titular factory. The scale of the practical special effects is still impressive, even preferred to the blast of CGI-ridden mayhem from Burton’s update. The slices of satire — non-sequiturs during the film’s prolonged first act, as the whole world desperately searches for a coveted Golden Ticket — went over my head as a child, but sent me into fizzy laughter as an adult.
The plot, for the unlucky few that haven’t seen the film: candy capitalist Willy Wonka reopens his mysterious factory to five lucky children. Four of the five winners run the gamut from gluttonous to spoiled rotten. The final recipient, the sweet Charlie Bucket (played by newcomer Peter Ostrum), is from a poor family that can only afford one chocolate bar a year. To the boy and his grandpa, Joe (Jack Albertson), a loaf of bread “looks like a banquet.”
The recent viewing clarified why the film resonated with me so strongly as a boy. The opening title sequence — gooey close-ups of actual chocolate being made —makes you want to lick the screen. The introduction to Wonka’s Chocolate Room is awesome, giving the viewer time to explore the space. Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the confectioner is playful and full of mischief — the character always upstages the guests’ parents, just as any kid would hope.
Nevertheless, the comedy is also one of considerable craft. It nimbly merges moods and colours, like Wonka’s strange musings alongside the common sense utterings of the kids’ parents or the colourful wardrobes set against the drab, Dickensian settings from the first half. Despite the wackiness of the story and some of the more caricatured supporting parts, the story world is grounded. The film is also restrained in its pacing, especially in comparison to the efficiency of modern family films. We don’t enter Wonka’s factory, or even see Wilder, until the 45-minute mark, letting the anticipation build. By comparison, Burton’s film reveals Wonka’s identity in the opening scenes and almost rushes through the contest.
However, the key to the film’s success is Wilder, who offers a sense of macabre mischief that sometimes makes him the biggest kid in the factory. Like the actor, the entire film — adapted by Roald Dahl and then rewritten by David Seltzer — has a giddiness of energy and imagination. The hype of the contest for the Golden Tickets results in wall-to-wall news coverage and cancelled school classes for what is, essentially, a marketing ploy. These moments are joyous to watch as a child due to their absurdity. As an adult, the scathing satire of capitalism and conspicuous consumption shines through.
The opening title sequence — gooey close-ups of actual chocolate being made —makes you want to lick the screen. Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the confectioner is playful and full of mischief — the character always upstages the guests’ parents, just as any kid would hope.
Of course, these moments are still absurd. A brief scene during the hunt for the Golden Tickets is set in a therapist’s office, where one of the patients is having thoughts of chocolate. Another takes place in a room with a computer, which its engineer hopes can locate the whereabouts of the remaining tickets. Minutes later, adults sit around an auction hall, bidding on the final, remaining box of Wonka bars. (One observation: I couldn’t remember these scenes, none of which feature children, from my numerous early viewings of the film.)
Wonka’s factory is, as he refers to it, a place where some of his dreams become realities and his realities become dreams. Those dreams are complete with chocolate waterfalls, lickable wallpaper and labs filled with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. A film with a relatively small budget for its intended scope (just three million), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a triumph of production design.
The computer-generated mayhem that would become omnipresent in 21st century family films is absent. The original’s uniqueness, along with that sense of danger, can explain why Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a box office hit in 2005) feels so disposable, like a scrumptious candy bar one unwraps, devours and throws away. There, so much of Wonka’s factory relies on computer-generated bluster that one cannot catch all the details hanging in the background.
Regardless, the newer film is a much more faithful take on Dahl’s book, staying closer to the dialogue and keeping characters like Charlie’s dad (played by Noah Taylor). However, the recent version lacks the feelings of whimsy and imagination associated with being young, despite the best intentions of Danny Elfman’s score.
Although Charlie gets his name in the title, Willy Wonka is the main character of Burton’s film. Instead of getting a good grip on the young hero, the story focuses on Wonka, his business travails and the paternal neglect that led him to heading a candy monopoly. Conversely, the film with Willy Wonka’s name is more about Charlie and his pursuit to be good and noble, even as he dreams of chocolate. The sweetness of Freddie Highmore (from the 2005 version) hardly registers as a blip in the film’s overwhelming exposition and production design. Both Highmore and Ostrum project angelic goodness, but we understand the latter’s altruism more.
Although a very different turn from the sly, sarcastic Wilder, Johnny Depp’s Wonka somehow works; his version is more akin to an eccentric recluse. He has no idea how to behave in front of ordinary people and has a high, flamboyant voice that, understandably, drew comparisons to Michael Jackson. Despite the dazzle of Alex McDowell’s production design, we actually get less time with the sugary confections in the factory. Here, the effects trump the story. “Candy doesn’t need to have a point… that’s why it’s candy,” Highmore’s Charlie tells another character in one scene. The quotation reflects the film’s corporate interests to dazzle for the sake of.
If born a decade later, I doubt the Burton interpretation (adapted by John August) would have received much play at home; it’s too sterile, sacrificing the satirical edge and wit that made the 1971 version so distinctly funny. Meanwhile, as a star vehicle for Johnny Depp, instead of a showcase for various young character actors, it minimizes the appeal for children. Part of the joy of watching Stuart’s version is the power and playfulness given to the five young actors, all of whom are formidable. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is just as much a treat of fun and fresh humour today as it was 45 years ago. The update already feels ancient, enslaved to an overreliance on exposition and digital effects that haven’t aged well.