Combined Rating: 3/5
There’s something off about this beloved kids movie. Beneath a glossy, fantasy laden premise that appeals to every downtrodden dreamer lies a festering vat of creepy, reflective of a disillusioned era. Willie Wonka, in a marketing ploy, hides rare golden tickets in his candy bars for the chance to win a lifetime supply of edible happiness. Would winning somehow make the rest of our protagonist Charlie’s squalid existence more bearable? But under the sugar coating, the elusive mastermind harbors a demented paranoia barely contained within the cutesy veneer portrayed to his clamoring public. What really goes on behind the secret walls of his chocolate factory? Is Wonka actually the cosmos’s incarnated check on child greed, or is he just plain off his gourd? Five lucky kids get to find out on their whirlwind factory tour, and are quickly exposed to the psychedelic weirdness within the walls, and the mind, of Willie Wonka, eccentrically performed by Gene Wilder.
This film falls into a sub-category of ‘70’s flicks that are probably more entertaining whilst in a chemically altered state (see Apocalypse Now, Rocky Horror Picture Show). I would never advocate drug use, but after multiple sober viewings, I believe one would have to be high to accept that grandpa can jump out of bed after 20+ years as an invalid and perform a musical number over the prospect of free candy. I know, I know, he’s excited for Charlie finding a golden ticket, but still. And then there’s the orange midgets Wonka employs to do his bidding. Ostensibly, they “make the confections,” but if you break a rule during the tour or fail to read the fine print…look out. Wonka’s story is that he “rescued” them from exploitation in Oompah-Loompah land, but they can’t help it if they also enjoy murdering greedy children in creative ways. Wonka assures his fans that the children consumed by his factory during the tour have been eventually returned to normal and to their families, but we never actually see this happen. So, we’re supposed to take his word for it, especially after a “boat ride from hell” sequence that makes Martin Sheen’s ride down the Mekong look pleasant. This is not a stable person. The capper is Wonka’s unexplained retirement proclamation and subsequent bequeathment of his entire company to Charlie…the latter’s true prize! Nevermind that Charlie is literally a back ally street urchin with a good heart who probably doesn’t know how to run a major corporation. And this is his reward? Given, it’s potentially better than unlimited chocolate bars, but only in proficient hands.
Basically, kids will be kids, and yet Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is kind of morally arguing that they should somehow all be better behaved across the board, irrespective of worldly circumstances. I don’t know, seems kind of harsh. Good thing we had our angel Charlie, or else the entire plot might have been rehashed, wrapped in deceptively tweaked Wonkalicious packaging and aimed at weeding out another cluster of brats. And what do you think would come of that? I don’t like the look of it.
I love kids’ films (maybe I’m simple, I don’t know—or naive, or something), and I’d never seen this one before, even though I’m almost certain I’ve read the book. But I had no desire to watch the Johnny Depp iteration, since even the previews gave me nightmares. Then again, I can’t honestly say that Gene Wilder’s was what you’d call “normal.” It’s a creepy character, and frankly kind of a weird story, even if there is also some whimsy to it in order to appeal to children.
The story follows Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), a poor but kind and respectful boy whose family all lives under a single roof: both sets of grandparents (all four of whom sleep in a single bed!), himself, and his mother, who apparently supports them all as a washer woman. Meanwhile, Willy Wonka (Wilder), the owner of a world famous chocolate factory, announces that he’s hidden five golden tickets inside some of his chocolate bars. The five people who find those tickets will win a tour of his factory, plus all the chocolate they can eat for life. Suddenly the whole world goes mad with obsession. Starry-eyed Charlie wants desperately to win, but of course the contest favors privileged children who can afford to purchase large quantities of chocolate to improve their chances. Sure enough, four of the five winners are very spoiled indeed—but at the last moment, Charlie finds the money to buy a bar and wins the fifth ticket. He has to attend with a guardian, so he takes his grandfather (who incidentally had been bedridden for the past 15 years but suddenly finds the strength to tap dance in his excitement.) From there, the story becomes a bit of a morality tale. Willy Wonka, apparently sociopathic, exposes the children and their guardians to innumerable dangers in his magical candy factory, which seems a bit like a real-life Candyland. Each of the other four flawed children comes face to face with a temptation tailor-made for them, including chocolate rivers, hens that lay real golden eggs, and magical bubble gum. Sure enough, each child gives in, and each gets his or her own “just desserts,” as it were (and the Oompa Loompas rejoice. They might have been the creepiest part of the whole film). Only Charlie successfully resists temptation, at which point (slight spoiler alert) we learn that Willy Wonka had been intentionally testing them all along. Charlie passes the test, and so Charlie wins a prize he can’t possibly use—but what the heck, we’re already suspending disbelief. Willy Wonka then undergoes a personality transplant in the last several minutes of the film, suddenly turning all warm and cuddly.
It sounds like I didn’t like the film. I did, kind of… it was just odd for a kid’s film. It was whimsical and imaginative, but I’ll probably never watch it again, and I’m certainly glad I never watched it as a child. If I’d seen the same film with Johnny Depp, I can’t even imagine.
Meal Pairing: eat dinner first, and have a banana split with this one: heavy on the hot fudge and sprinkles.