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Should I Watch..? Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
What's the big deal?
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a fantasy musical film released in 1971 and is based on the novel Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Arguably the most well known of Dahl's works, the film features Peter Ostrum in his sole movie appearance as Charlie Bucket, a young boy invited into the mysterious world of Willy Wonka along with his grandfather and four other children. Despite positive reviews, the film was a disappointment at the box office with a total gross of just $4 million against a $3 million budget. However, the film has become a cult classic and a re-release in 1996 grossed a much improved $21 million. It also became very popular in the home entertainment market as well as producing a stage musical and a reboot, directed by Tim Burton in 2005.
What's it about?
In a small town somewhere, the enigmatic Willy Wonka has a vast and secretive confectionary factory which produces a wild array of fantastic sweets. So when he announces a competition to win a prize tour around the factory for five holders of a golden ticket, the world goes wild in trying to track them down. The first four tickets are found by greedy German boy Augustus Gloop, spoiled English madam Veruca Salt, rude American girl Violet Beauregarde and square-eyed American boy Mike Teevee. The last ticket is found by Charlie Bucket whose impoverished family all live under one roof. As stipulated on the Golden Ticket, Charlie chooses to take his Grandpa Joe with him and the five winners all meet up the next day outside Wonka's gates.
The man himself welcomes them to his factory which is a mind-bending maze populated by Oompa Loompas, who help Wonka to create his crazy confectionary. With chocolate rivers, trippy boat-rides and a variety of bizarre inventions, Wonka's world is a strange one to inhabit and not without its own unique perils. But beyond the factory walls, another one waits - Wonka's rival Slugworth has offered the five visitors unlimited riches if they can steal some of Wonka's secrets...
Julie Dawn Cole
Roald Dahl *
Release Date (UK)
12th August, 1971
Family, Fantasy, Musical
Academy Award Nomination
Best Original Song
What's to like?
Familiarity, we're often told, breeds contempt but few films age as well as this one does. Despite its age and rough-around-the-corner effects, the film is a complete delight for children as well as adults. The film is smart enough to appear to be a straight-forward fantasy with its colourful and imaginative sets, not to mention the off-putting nature of the Oompa Loompas. But like most of Dahl's work, it has a darkness bubbling away beneath the surface which is epitomised by Wilder's electric performance as Wonka. He is a complete live-wire, perfectly capable of switching mood or personality at the drop of his brown hat. At times, he almost feels like an antagonist as the children all come a cropper one way or another.
But there's more to enjoy than Wilder's pitch-perfect lunatic. The songs are infectious and fun while the other child actors also acquit themselves well, especially Ostrum as Charlie and Cole as the vile Veruca. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory has a level of thought to it that a lot of family films forget to include and it certainly doesn't talk down to children either. It's also strangely evocative, especially the slightly surreal end sequence - if it doesn't prompt a tear then frankly, you may be beyond help.
- The Wonkatania boat was riding a track under the surface but the Oompa Loompa cast member at the helm thought that they were steering it for real. Director Stuart hadn't the heart to tell him the truth.
- The film was shot in Munich but many of the Oompa Loompa cast members had to be brought in from outside Germany. Most of them did not speak English and one of them was even a woman.
- Ostrum never made another movie after this and later became a vet working in Lowville, New York. For a while, he even told people that his brother was in the film instead of him! However, he appears to have accepted his past and reunited with the other child actors for the 40th anniversary.
What's not to like?
Naturally, the film has dated in some areas - no doubt addressed in Burton's reboot Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (1) with CG effects smoothing over the rougher edges seen here. Some of the effects have dated somewhat - the Wonkavision scene is a good example of this - and some of the on-screen text also looks quite old-fashioned as well such as during the Oompa Loompa songs. The setting also feels off-putting and not because of the chocolate river flowing through it - despite a largely American and British cast, there's no disguising the fact that the film is set in a quaint German village somewhere which doesn't look much like America or Britain.
It is worth stressing just how dark this film can get, in case you think I'm bluffing. The scene in question is the infamous "tunnel" sequence where the light go out, various nasty images appear in the background like a chicken having its head removed and Wilder's performance genuinely feels unhinged. It is an intense sequence in the film and although it doesn't get any darker or more surreal than this scene, it might prevent younger viewers from wanting to watch all of it.
Should I watch it?
The chances are, you already have thanks to frequently appearing on TV. But anyone new to the story will be delighted at this deliciously dark slice of family entertainment. Challenging and surreal but inventive and filled with a real sense of fun, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a joyous excuse to get the whole family together and watch a film that everyone will enjoy.
Great For: fans of the book, nostalgic adults, chocoholics
Not So Great For: Health & Safety inspectors, very young children, naughty children
What else should I watch?
It's hard to believe but the same hand that wrote this also produced the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice (2) but Dahl wasn't the only author writing for children as well as adults. Ian Fleming had a go himself with the utterly bonkers Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (3) that Dahl himself co-wrote the screenplay for, about the famous flying car in 1968. The same year, Disney also released The Love Bug (4) which introduced to audiences the most lovable Volkswagen Beetle the world would ever know, Herbie.
Rarely dipping in popularity in the years since they've been published, Dahl's children's books have actually taken their time to make it onto the big screen. Wes Anderson's stop-motion animation of Fantastic Mr Fox (5) wasn't the runaway success he might have hoped for and it's a long while since Matilda (6) and The Witches (7) was released. The most recent was a live-action version of arguably Dahl's most revered work, The BFG (8), in 2016 which, despite the usual amount of hype accompanying a Steven Spielberg release, underwhelmed at the box office.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox