Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
If you’ve ever thought something was going to be all sweet and innocent only to discover that it was actually a nightmare hellscape, you’ll understand the viewing experience of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Which is, for the record, a movie about a group of misbehaving kids who disappear one by one while on a once in a lifetime tour of a chocolate factory and by the end are pretty much missing presumed dead.
It’s a dark, trippy experience that only the early 1970s could have produced and marketed to children, and the fact that it exists at all is a wonder. Truly, we owe a great debt to the unique mind of Roald Dahl, who understood perhaps like no one else how dark and twisted kids actually are.
We begin our story with Charlie Bucket, the almost comically impoverished hero who lives in a shack with his laundress mother and four grandparents who for some reason share one giant bed. Like most other kids his age, he fantasizes about finding a golden ticket hidden underneath the wrapper of a Wonka bar, but unlike most of his classmates, he can’t afford the luxury of buying dozens upon dozens of candy bars in wild pursuit of the opportunity to tour the chocolate factory.
Charlie is the prototypical Good Child, whose innocence and noble heart make him the emotional center of the film. He is the one who the audience roots for to get a lucky break, if for no other reason than that he deserves it more than all the other unworthy children.
And let’s talk about those four other children who get to join the tour, and how they’re all essentially the personification of qualities adults find reprehensible in “kids these days”. Veruca Salt is spoiled, Augustus Gloop is gluttonous, Mike Teevee is obsessed with television, and Violet Beauregarde...chews too much gum? Honestly, #justiceforviolet, she didn’t deserve her fate. She seemed like a driven child with business savvy and Wonka could have done worse than having her inherit the company.
So anyway, Charlie and Grandpa Joe (who suspiciously finds the strength to walk again as soon as chocolate is on the line, performing a full on vaudeville number seconds after climbing out of bed -- I see you, Joe) go on a tour of the Wonka factory, where children keep getting picked off one by one to the complete lack of alarm from their host, Mr. Willy Wonka himself.
Gene Kelly as Willy Wonka is the undisputed star of the show, and largely the reason why this film has become a classic for generations of children. He brings an off kilter charm and mischievousness to the role, and from the moment he enters the film hobbling with a cane only to perform a somersault, we never quite know if we (or the characters, for that matter) should trust him. Throughout the film, he is a joy to watch, his deadpan reactions to children in mortal danger, delightfully malevolent little ditty on the boat ride into hell, and general eccentricity turning the character into an icon.
A huge part of what makes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory such a great film is that it doesn’t shy away from its darker elements. The chocolate factory is every kid’s dream, but it’s also kind of a menacing nightmare. In this dark fable, actions have consequences and no one is safe. Just because it’s about children doesn’t mean that it has to pander -- Roald Dahl always seemed to think that kids were made of tougher stuff than we give them credit for, and that shows here. And it’s worth noting that Dahl thought even this version was a little soft.
But for me, it’s always struck the right balance. Even though things have a tendency to go off the rails in Wonka’s house of horror, there’s still a sense of magic and wonder that is incredibly appealing. The Pure Imagination number is a sumptuous ode to a boundless creative spirit, and the practical effects used in this sequence are delightful.
I’ve always appreciated that this film embraced a wildly eccentric sense of humor that likely went over the heads of many child viewers. Wonka himself has a delivery that is delightful, and one of the best additions to the film from the novel is the series of vignettes depicting the frenzy of full on adults going crazy trying to find a golden ticket. My personal favorite is the guy who programs a computer to locate a golden ticket, only to have the computer turn on him because it’s a machine and sees no value in chocolate.
At any rate, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a childhood staple, with the right amount of sentiment, silliness, and morality tales with truly terrifying consequences to make it enjoyable for all ages!