Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 6 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it a listen for a more in-depth discussion!
Most of the movies I remember from my childhood are animated and no longer worth my time. However, there are a few gems that withstand the test of time, and the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of those movies that is part of some of my earliest movie memories; it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Based on Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this movie tells the story of young Charlie Buckett, a boy who lives in a rundown one-room shack with his mother and four bedridden grandparents. They are the very definition of poor, and Charlie himself has a paper route to help to provide for his family. One day, the mysterious Willy Wonka – a reclusive, highly successful candymaker – announces to the world a contest that will allow five lucky people access into his factory for a day, along with a lifetime supply of chocolate. When lucky Charlie finds a ticket, it’s off to the factory with four other children to see what awaits them.
*this movie is 45 years old; there are spoilers*
This movie is a classic for obvious reasons, not the least of which is the fabulous Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He captivates the viewer in every moment he appears onscreen, and his energy is occasionally menacing but more often charming. The twinkle in his eye will make you smile, and listening to him sing “Pure Imagination” will tug at your heartstrings. In the final scene when Wonka promises Charlie his factory and a “happily ever after”, the warmth felt is so incredibly genuine that you can’t help but smile – and maybe even shed a tear.
But Gene Wilder isn’t the only highlight here. All of the children are wonderfully despicable and spoiled, but believable to the point that children viewers can identify parts of themselves and therefore learn from the mistakes of their onscreen counterparts. Peter Ostrum as Charlie shines in his only film role to date: he portrays all of the character’s honesty, kindness, and pure intentions with such an earnestness that you feel for him when he longs for a Golden Ticket but realizes how low his chances are, you grin when he sprints home with the Ticket clutched in hand, and you cheer as he hugs Wonka, knowing that his family will hunger no more. Rarely do you get a child actor, especially one with so little other film experience, who is able to portray such a wide range of emotions believably. Jack Albertson as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe is also a standout role, featuring the love and care expected of a grandfather as well as the energy and zeal of a much younger man. His love for Charlie is obvious as he acts as the beacon of hope for Charlie during his search for the Golden Ticket and as he climbs out of bed for the first time in twenty years to accompany Charlie to the factory – and the first thing he does is participate in an entirely too fun dance number! Watching him sing and dance to “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” is one of my two favorite scenes in the entire film.
Speaking of songs, I’ve already mentioned my two favorites – “Pure Imagination” and “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket”, and “Candy Man” is a great show opener featuring the wonderful Aubrey Woods as the candy shop owner singing to a group of ecstatic children, a scene that also introduces us for the first time to the idea of Wonka and who he might be: a man born to make candy, apparently! The team of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley composed both the songs and the film score, for which they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, and rightly so; the overture that plays over the montage of candy-making in the opening credits is a fantastic introduction to the musical landscape of the movie, and other fine musical moments include the instrumental versions of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and “Pure Imagination” that play in the scenes when Charlie runs home to show off his prize and when Wonka, Charlie, and Grandpa Joe view the city from the Glass Elevator at the end of the film, respectively. And who could forget “Oompa, Loompa” (no one…the answer is “no one”).
I really don’t need to say all that much about this movie because no doubt you’ve already seen it. And if you haven’t? Shame on you. Go get yourself a copy, now, and bask in the magical, scrumdiddlyumptious world. Roald Dahl was always one of my favorite authors as a kid because he taught that childhood was something to relish rather than rush, and that creativity and imagination are our greatest gifts. Not only does Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory display these themes of childhood wonder and pure imagination, but it also serves as a visual and musical treat that stands the test of time and still dazzles to this day. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it’s a movie that’s as (or even more) important to me now as it was when I first watched it as a child.
Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.