Movie Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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Rating: A/ I haven’t read a Roald Dahl book in ages, but I remember them being among my favorites when I was a small child. I liked The Twits so much, in fact, that I read it twice- once to myself, once to my brother. Dahl is a bit of an enigma; he’s a brilliant storyteller but at the same time it’s hard to picture his children’s books being published in this politically correct day and age. He spins tales that are dark, often frightening, and sometimes venomously mean; fables to curl the toes of sensitive children.

His books are set in a magical but sometimes menacing world where mistreatment of children is startlingly prevalent and not even the grown-ups can be trusted to make the right choices (a lesson, that sadly, kids should probably learn sooner rather than later.) Nevertheless, I adored his books; they didn’t pander to overly puerile or politically correct sensibilities, they were fun and easy to read, and they had a gleeful sense of just desserts toward the villainous characters.

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Dahl himself disliked this adaptation of his book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have to disagree. Gene Wilder is everything in this movie, and his snarky, sly sense of humor and expressions of dry merriment toward the unpleasant, but not lethal fates of several awful children make this movie great. Peter Ostrum (delightful despite his relative lack of acting experience) plays Charlie Bucket, an impoverished young English boy who finds a golden ticket in a candy bar and thus earns the privilege to tour eccentric recluse’s Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder)’s chocolate factory.

The problem is, four other kids, each rottener than the last, have won a chance to come along as well. Charlie departs for his destination with his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson,) who has spent the last twenty years bed-ridden and miraculously recovers just in time to come along. When they get to Wonka’s inner sanctum, they learn that the candy man himself is a pretty weird dude and has no problem with standing by as the bratty kids meet with dangerous ‘accidents’ (or are they? Mu-ha-ha-ha.) This adventure will test Charlie’s courage, honesty, and integrity, and the ultimate prize at the end of the tour is more than he could’ve ever imagined.

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The set pieces of this movie are amazing, their creative genius reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, in a totally awesome way, If you like the way Stanley Kubrick designed his surreal environments, you’ll like this too. There’s a shrinking room, an optical illusion involving geese, and an office where everything is cut precisely in half; lamps, statues, desks, the whole lot. This movie reminds us of how much better we had it when CGI creations didn’t dominate the movie industry. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is also a musical, and the songs are incredibly catchy; in fact, they might just get irrevocably stuck in your brain.

The best thing about this movie, though, is Gene Wilder. I know I already said that, but I cannot stress it enough. His humor makes the film the rollicking black comedy it is. I haven’t seen the Tim Burton remake, but it seems to me (from watching the promos) that Johnny Depp was far too creepy for this role. There’s a difference between being an eccentric oddball and being downright off-putting, but Depp seems to have crossed that line. Gene Wilder’s Wonka is definitely odd and has a few bugs in his attic, but he seems to have a genuinely sweet side too. The juxtaposition of childishly quirky and whimsical, drippingly sarcastic (while still saying ‘up yours’ in the nicest, most convivial way possible,) and weird and sinister (such as the nightmare-inducing ‘tunnel scene’) make Wonka the most wonderful character and Wilder the undisputed man for the job.

This movie should be a part of kids’ childhoods, though the very young or the very sensitive might be scared by some of the darker moments. Despite the author’s objections, I think this is very much in the spirit of Roald Dahl; a perfect combination of whimsy and the darker, shadowier aspects of human nature. In the process of telling a great story, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sheds light on Dahl’s personal pet peeves; excessive gum chewing, gluttony, entitlement, and TV addiction; and makes us laugh in the process. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of Dahl’s books, this movie should have the ability to make you smile, especially with the talented group of actors in the cast.

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4 thoughts on “Movie Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)”

  1. Completely agree with you (and not Dahl- who, for all his genius, was a bit of a tool in real life :/ ) It’s a great movie and definitely should be part of everyone’s childhood. The only issue I’ve had with this movie though is how sad it is when he rejects Charlie for a brief period. But you’re right Gene Wilder is amazing in this!

  2. Excellent read. I thought this was great: “This movie reminds us of how much better we had it when CGI creations didn’t dominate the movie industry.”

    Oh amen brother! I just watched this the other night and it occurred to me how villainous Wonka is! He is a total screwball and when the kids go to do something dangerous you hear him saying ‘please, stop, don’t’ like he doesn’t care at all! He is the ultimate villain! 😀

    I also think the movie is amazing cos it covers so much: our greed, our obsession with TV, our dishonesty, our wanting of material products, the value of honesty…. it really is a fantastic children’s film as well as a crazy dark comedy for adults.

    Great post

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