Looking back on 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (an adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1964 children's book originally titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), it's easy to see why the film has become such a beloved family classic over the years. The movie is filled with vibrant candy colors, sly humor, and a warped sense of imagination. More importantly, it has endearing characters and a clever way of working in its moral lessons for kids without beating them over the head with its heavy-handedness. Most of this is attributable to Dahl's original story, of course. The film is not precisely faithful to the book, but television director Mel Stuart nonetheless managed to craft a compelling fairy tale that has charmed both children and adults for the past 35 years. The movie is so loved, in fact, that when Tim Burton announced his plans to remake/re-adapt the story in 2005 many fans were aghast at his audacity.
The two films are very similar in story (taken from the basics of Dahl's text) if different in approach and detail. The essential ingredients are identical: poor but virtuous Charlie Bucket, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, the spoiled brat Veruca Salt, the rude and competitive Violet Beauregarde, and the obnoxious television addict Mike Teavee. Each of these children is the fortunate possessor of a coveted Golden Ticket that will grant them access to an exclusive tour of the most fabulous candy factory in all the world, hosted by the eccentric chocolatier himself, Willy Wonka. Once inside, their senses will be overwhelmed by the fantastical surprises Wonka has in store, and one of them will win the ultimate prize to be divulged only to the victor.
The 1971 movie places much emphasis on humor, with its clever dialogue and still hilarious parodies of TV newscasts and our cultural obsessions with wealth and possessions. Structurally, the film is a little awkward; the first half sets an almost Dickensian realistic tone, while Wonka and the most outrageous fantasy elements aren't introduced for 45 minutes. The inside of the candy factory has a sort of hippy trippy production design, including a psychedelic boat ride, that's both dated and oddly timeless all at once. Stuart's budget obviously fell a little short, leaving him without the resources to visualize some backstory involving the Oompa Loompas that's revealed only in dialogue here and works better in Burton's version. The musical numbers are also very much a product of their time, featuring a distinctly '70s easy listening vibe.
Where the two films most radically diverge is in their depiction of Willy Wonka himself. As played by Gene Wilder, the candy maker is often outlandish but certainly not daft. He's knows exactly what's going on at all times and has planned every event with a specific purpose. In fact, many of his actions are just mean-spirited. He has a creepy intensity about him in some scenes, and I won't be the first to question whether some of the movie's weird pedophilia overtones are intentional or inadvertent. But don't let me overstate this, because at the same time the role is played by Gene Wilder, an actor with a natural gentleness and kindness about him that softens most of those potentially dark edges. It's an iconic performance, whimsical but with just a hint of darkness, and is one of the reasons the film has endured so well.
Both film adaptations of Roald Dahl's story have their place and both deserve to become classics. Although Dahl himself reportedly disliked the finished product (he's credited with the screenplay but was substantially rewritten), Mel Stuart's 1971 version is loaded with charm and grace, and still holds up well three decades and change later.
The HD DVD:
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Willy Wonka HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
The transfer looks great for a movie from 1971. The picture is bright and clean, with all manor of sparkly candy colors. The photography is grainy here and there but well-compressed and never noisy. The image is fairly sharp overall, especially in medium shots and close-ups, but wide shots are generally less impressive and a number of scenes were filmed in deliberate soft focus. Detail and depth are pleasing nonetheless. Colors usually lean toward the bright end of the spectrum, without the vibrancy deeper hues might impart. Whether that's due to the original cinematography or overzealous digital cleanup I'm not sure. Reds and blues are also sometimes a little smeary. Regardless, this is a very satisfying High-Def transfer.
The Willy Wonka HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. Unfortunately, the original mono sound mix has not been included.
As far as multi-channel remixes of monaural soundtracks go, this one isn't too offensive. Essentially only the music has been expanded to fill the soundstage, which it usually does with pleasing warmth. The remainder of the mix stays anchored in the front center channel. Dialogue tends to sound hollow, unfortunately, and other sound effects are dated and thin. This is neither a great nor awful audio presentation for the movie. I'm very disappointed that Warner couldn't be bothered to provide the original mono track.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 1.0.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). The menus are also poorly designed with a highlight color barely distinguishable from the non-highlight color.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. All of the important supplements from the DVD have carried over.
Missing from the DVD is a photo gallery. It's not a significant loss.
- Commentary with the Wonka Kids - All five of the original child actors reunite for this breezy track. Not a lot of hard information is presented, but the cast has a good rapport and seems to be having fun reminiscing about their time on the set.
- Pure Imagination (30 min.) – An excellent making-of documentary featuring interviews with Mel Stuart, producer David Wolper, uncredited screenwriter David Seltzer, and Gene Wilder. Among the information learned: Stuart's daughter was a fan of the book and convinced him to make the movie; the Quaker Oats company produced the film to promote their new candy line, which was the real reason for the title change; and all of the kids auditioned for the picture by reading from the book because there was no finished script at that time. Unfortunately, no mention is made of Dahl's dislike for the finished movie.
- Original Theatrical Featurette (4 min.) – A vintage promotional piece focusing on the film's art direction.
- Sing Along Songs (9 min.) – Four musical numbers excerpted from the movie with karaoke-style sing along lyrics.
- Theatrical Trailer (3 min.) – A vintage trailer that runs far too long and gives away too much of the story, right up to and including the final shot.
A family classic still capable of charming audiences 35 years later, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory holds up surprisingly well in High Definition. This is an easy recommendation.
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