Willy Wonka: Where is fancy bred? In the heart or in the head?
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
Many kids read Roald Dahl’s books growing up but the one I remember the most was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book had not one but two live action adaptations: one in 1971 and one in 2005. The 1971 version however, is what most people associate with the classic story.
The story is that young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), along with four other children, wins a private tour of the mysterious chocolate factory owned by Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). Each of the children are approached by Wonka’s rival, Arthur Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) who offers them a reward in exchange for Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper. As the children go about the factory they find themselves entranced by the wonders and temptations it provides.
One aspect that stands out about this movie is that although it is called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it is more about Charlie (interestingly enough the 2005 remake reversed this). The movie makes several changes from the book but it sticks to the general tone. The factory is a place of great wonder and imagination. And that imagination can lead down many roads of charm and whimsy but also ones of darkness and horror. The factory is filled with temptations that embody the tones of the movie. Even Charlie is unable to resist some temptations. But the movie emphasizes why Charlie is a good kid in spite of them as exemplified by the last test with Wonka’s outburst. The other kids would have given the Gobstopper to Slugworth even if they had survived whether Wonka refused to give them the chocolate or not. Even when Wonka dismisses Charlie and refuses to give the chocolate, Charlie stays true to his kind and innocent nature by refusing to spite Wonka by giving Slugworth the Gobstopper.
Gene Wilder is the definitive Willy Wonka and perfectly embodies the tone of the movie. His ideas all around the factory resemble the fantasy mind of imagination as a child but he can also be scary in the way he guides the children and parents on the tour. When we see him at first, neither the characters nor the audience have any idea of what he has planned but it becomes clear that there is a plan. His performance gives a great deal of mystery but also a man of suaveness, elegance, and kindness that makes him so enjoyable.
All the child actors represent their book counterparts well. What makes the characters enjoyable in spite of their bratty natures is the fact that (unlike the 2005 version) it’s not too heavy-handed. The kids feel like actual kids and their bad habits feel like the bad parts of being a kid. Charlie in particular stands out as even though he’s a nice kid as he’s a very realistic kid in that he could get sad, angry, or even desperate as seen when he finds out the last Golden Ticket is a forgery he immediately jumps at the chance to open a chocolate bar meant for Grandpa Joe (having already taken one for himself earlier) the moment he finds out the last Golden ticket is a fake.
The Oompa-Loompas are also well done. The way they all look truly ties into the bizarre nature of the factory. That is to say, if you had never heard of an Oompa-Loompa, this is what would come to mind in how weird the name sounds and the look to match up.
Finally there are the songs. Each one is well sung and provides something special. The Candy Man and Pure Imagination help emphasize the wonder of Wonka’s World. Cheer Up Charlie helps give a ray of hope when Charlie’s has such slim odds of winning a ticket. The Oompa Loompa songs are relatively the same but it’s a catchy tune and each one emphasizes the flaws of each child.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is easily the best adaptation of Dahl’s book out there (even though Dahl himself did not like the movie). It has the perfect tones and Wilder’s performance to bring them to our heroes. In its changes it shows why Charlie is a worthy successor showing that while he’s still a flawed kid, he has his heart in the right place. It provides a mysterious but enjoyable atmosphere to absorb and provides a unique moral of being true to one’s self.