Monday, May 6, 2013

Pure Imagination

Film: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I suppose that there are people older than 20 who haven’t seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but I can’t really imagine how that is the case. I’m overstating, of course—there are plenty of “everyone’s seen it” films that I’ve missed. And part of this is my own childhood. This was the first movie to every really scare me (more on that later). I’ve seen the remake as well, and while that version is far more faithful to the book, I’ll always have a warm fuzzy for the original version of the film. Yeah, I’m tipping my hand early.

Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) is the only child of a widowed mother (Diana Sowle) and four bedridden grandparents. Charlie lives in an unknown part of the world—it looks a hell of a lot like Germany (where it was filmed), but everyone speaks English. No matter. Anyway, Charlie’s family is so unbelievably poor that he is forced to work after school, and on his first payday he buys a loaf of bread to supplement the family’s typical diet of thin cabbage soup.

Wherever he lives, he lives in the town that houses the Wonka candy factory. The great mystery of Wonka’s factory is that no one ever enters or leaves, and yet candy pours out by the metric ton. Suddenly, factory owner Willy Wonka announces a contest: he places five golden tickets inside five of his giant candy bars. Those who find the tickets will receive a lifetime supply of chocolate and (most importantly), a tour of the factory.

The whole world gets Wonka fever, and over time, four of the tickets are found, each one by a particularly awful child. Eventually, the fifth ticket is found, but is discovered to be a forgery. This happens immediately after Charlie finds some money in the street and buys a Wonka bar, which, of course, contains the real fifth golden ticket. On his way home, he is accosted by a man who claims to be Wonka’s biggest rival, Arthur Slugworth (Gunter Meisner), who has appeared next to all of the other ticket winners. He tells Charlie that Wonka is working on a new invention that he wants. Charlie runs home, and suddenly Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) is able to walk and dance after twenty years of lying in bed (and he’d certainly be well-rested).

And so we go to the factory where we are introduced to Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) himself. The factory inside is a wonderland of weirdness featuring a series of little people called Oompa Loompas. One by one, the children are picked off by falling prey to something horrible. This is the entire second half of the film, and it follows a basic patter. Wonka shows everyone a wonder or two from his factory, one of the kids has some significant misadventure, and everyone moves on.

The kids, in the order the vanish, are Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), who very much represents gluttony and kids who are overindulged by their parents; he’s there with his mother (Ursula Reit). Second to go is the obnoxious Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), a snotty gum chewer, who leaves behind her father (Leonard Stone). Third on the list is Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), spoiled rotten. Her father (Roy Kinnear) attends as well, and is the one parent who falls prey to the same trap as his child. Fourth on the list is Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) and his mother (Dodo Denney). Each child falls victim to his or her own particular vice. Eventually, there’s only Charlie left.

Throughout, there are plenty of songs, ones that even those rare people who have never seen this would recognize—The Candyman, Pure Imagination, and (of course) the songs sung by the Oompa Loompas. It also quickly becomes evident that poor Peter Ostrum can’t sing a damn note. Fortunately, he doesn’t sing that much, and everyone else appears to be able to carry a tune.

There are a bunch of notable scenes. The first is the group’s entry into the factory and the chocolate room. I imagine that it looked like something back in the day—today it looks quite a bit less than it is supposed to, but it’s still pretty magical, and it’s one of Gene Wilder’s best moments in the film. Following hot on its heels is the boat ride from hell, featuring footage of lizards eating insects, large millipedes crawling on people’s faces, and a chicken being decapitated. It’s also Wilder’s most prominent moment of pure insanity. Following this is the invention room, where I lost it as a kid. See, this is where Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry. As a kid, blueberries were my favorite, and there was a part of me that thought that in eating as many blueberries as I had in my lifetime, I’d probably committed cannibalism at some point.

There’s more, of course, but there are only two options here. First, you’ve seen the film and you know exactly what happens with the fizzy lifting drink and how each of the other kids meets his or her confectionary demise. The other possibility is that for some reason you’ve missed this film for a bunch of years and should really discover it yourself.

For as much as Jack Albertson and Peter Ostrum are central to this film, it is first and foremost Gene Wilder’s film. This is in spite of the fact that he doesn’t show up at all for the first 45 minutes or so. It is his performance, more than the candy room or the memorable songs that makes this film the classic it has become. Wilder’s performance is equal parts genius, childlike wonder, and complete insanity, and in a career of great performances and memorable roles, it is perhaps his greatest and most memorable.

Not bad for a film original created to sell candy bars.

Why to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: A genuine classic that really is for kids of all ages.
Why not to watch: After 40 years, it’s not as magical as it once was.


  1. It is a scary film, but I love the songs and Wilder. "Candyman" is a particular favorite of mine (by Sammy Davis, Jr., though). Ah, plagued by blueberries, what a shame. LOL

  2. Yeah, I'm pretty much over my blueberry fear these days.

  3. I. Love. This. Movie.

    I disagree, I don't think its magic is any less diluted now that I'm an adult. It was awesome as a kid, and if anything, I like it more now.

    I had an amazing experience seeing this at the Dryden. Peter Ostrum came and did a Q&A after the screening. The place was packed. The level of excitement the audience had for the film was akin to a what it was like at the midnight premiere of Return of the King, no joke. When Charlie opens the candy bar to discover the golden ticket, THE PLACE BURST OUT IN CHEERS AND APPLAUSE. Seriously, everyone in that theater had seen the film before, but everyone was SO caught up in the film's excitement, it was like seeing it for the first time. It was amazing, easily one of the top five theater experiences I've ever had.

    1. It's one of those things--movies that rely all or in part on visual wow always look their age eventually. The special effects that were so awesome 20 years ago (or 40+ years ago) are so much less so now.

      There are great visual moments in this, but there are times when the strings are really evident to me.

      But don't get me wrong--I'm a big Wonka fan.

    2. Gotcha - special effects. Yes, absolutely, especially in the Mike Teevee section, those definitely show their age.

  4. Great review. This was a staple of my childhood - practically watched the damn thing on repeat. I agree that it may have lost some of its magic, but I'll take it over Burton's version any old day.

    1. Me, too. Burton's version has more visual punch and is far (far!) closer to the actual book, but what it gains in spectacle and accuracy, it loses in genuine charm and the awesomeness that is Gene Wilder.

  5. I'm not sure what age I was when I first saw this. I was probably around 8-12. I very likely saw it on TV. I don't remember being scared by the boat ride, but it's possible that that was edited out of the TV broadcast. I remember thinking to myself, "so that's where that song came from" (The Candyman, which had been a radio hit for Sammy Davis, Jr.)

    I liked the movie, but I don't believe it ever held a special place for me because I just saw it the once. Some time in the late 80s/early 90s, when video rentals had become common, my sister mentioned that she had rented this film for her son and daughter at their request, they invited friends over, and she was astonished that all these kids were practically reciting the movie word for word - a movie that had come out before any of them were born. It was only then that I realized the movie had become a phenomenon for the next generation and that this was due to the home rental market. It was my first glimpse of the impact that market would have due to the ability to own a movie and to watch it over and over.

    I now own a copy on DVD myself, although I didn't buy it when it came out. The studio put out a special anniversary edition...and the only version they stupidly offered was a pan and scan version. There was enough protest to release the widescreen version that they eventually caved and did so. I bought it then and watched it for the first time in probably 25-30 years. I liked it just as much, if not more.

    By the way, if you have never listened to the commentary track from the five "kids" (then all in their 40s) then I highly recommend it. You can tell they were having a ball reliving things, especially the two women when they started talking about how they were fighting over the boy who played Charlie - who was apparently oblivious to it at the time.

    1. I have listened to the commentary track. I got this copy from NetFlix because I'm not sure where my copy is--buried in one of the girls' rooms more than likely. It's one of the better commentaries out there--ranking with Fight Club, which has my favorite commentary track ever.

      Candyman is probably the song everyone associates with this film, but I prefer Pure Imagination, both for the visuals that come with it, the lyrics, and for Wilder's magnificent performance through it.

  6. While the Tim Burton movie has some excellent music, and I prefer the warm treatment of the grandparents in that movie to this one, this is the better version on almost every level.

    You can really believe that Willy Wonka is in total control the entire time. In the Tim Burton version, not so much.

    For the record, Pure Imagination is my favorite song here.

    1. I agree. The Burton version feels plastic, while this one, warts and all, feels much more real.

      I'll go so far as to suggest that Pure Imagination is one of the best movie songs ever performed. It would almost certainly make my top 5.

  7. Well, I admit I was one of those few who never watched this movie. Partly because it was never a big thing on Danish TV, but more likely because I got scared away by the weird cartoon serial they did air. Now I feel I missed something in my childhood.

    1. Cultural touchstones are different from place to place. In the U.S., this is something that was on TV every year when I was a kid. You made plans to watch it every year, just like The Wizard of Oz.