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I don't think that Tim Burton's lavish remake is going to diminish the appeal of 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a charming, smartly realized film version of Roald Dahl's popular children's book. Burton's gothic weirdness is no improvement over director Mel Stuart's straight version, which gives the off-kilter character of Willy Wonka (one of Gene Wilder's best performances ever) a slight edge without ever spilling over into real menace.
Independent producer David Wolper clearly saw Wonka as a shot at a genuine children's classic, his The Wizard of Oz. Gene Wilder is certainly a fresh casting idea, when a big studio would probably insist on someone like Dick Van Dyke. As we learn in the thorough disc extras, Wolper and Stuart made some tough production decisions to sustain a timeless, non- showbiz atmosphere. Top singer Sammy Davis Jr. lobbied to perform the film's leadoff song "The Candyman" but had to settle for a #1 hit cover version. Having the less known actor Aubrey Woods sing the song in the film adds to Willy Wonka's creative integrity. No showstoppers, please -- the story comes first.
Roald Dahl's narrative takes place in a world of economic realities. Young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) is desperate to win a Golden Ticket to the re-opening of Willy Wonka's mysterious candy factory, which has been closed to the public for ten years. Thinking all the desired tickets are accounted for, Willy thoughtfully buys his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) a candy bar. It happens to contain the last winner -- Charlie will receive a lifetime supply of chocolate and go on the exclusive guided tour. Greeting his guests at the gate, the decidedly odd Wonka (Gene Wilder) ushers them into his secret factory with chocolate rivers and fantastic candy making machines, all maintained by a race of strange little people called Oompa Loompas. The other four winning children are by turns greedy, gluttonous, vain and obnoxious. One by one they break the rules and are expelled from the factory through a series of disturbing "accidents". Wonka seems to be testing his young guests and finding them seriously wanting. Charlie and his Grandpa Joe break a rule as well -- will Wonka reject them as well?
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant 70s climate of children's films, when "All Family" fare had devolved into mindless pap like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The admirable Mister Wonka would likely turn that film's chirping brats into statues of rock candy, just to shut them up. For all its fantasy, the world of Wonka is fairly realistic. Even the master candy maker must make hard business decisions. Seeing his best candies stolen by competitors, Wonka closed his shop and carried on in strictest secrecy -- as sort of a combination Walt Disney and Howard Hughes. No wonder he's a bit of an eccentric.
The story has a slightly freaky aspect, something that kids have always appreciated. Charlie Bucket is a whimsical Dickensian lad, always acting the little gentleman and trying not to show his disappointment to his loving family, who are never exaggerated or held up as paragons. As Charlie's Mom, actress Diana Sowle gets her own song ("Cheer up, Charlie") yet is not over-sentimentalized. The other five children are spoiled little monsters, each with their own theme. Power-mad little princess Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) demands that her father (Roy Kinnear, in fine form) buy her everything she sees; her song is "I Want It Now!" The competitive gum-chewer Violet Beauregard (Denise Nickerson of Smile) demands attention at all times. Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) is a mindless glutton and the TV-obsessed Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) is a willful loudmouth. The parents are a typically indulgent bunch, some less obnoxious than others. Violet's father (Leonard Stone) is a sales obsessed car dealer. All seem blind to their children's bad behavior, leaving only Charlie and his grandfather to come off as imperfect but reasonable. Willy Wonka does proffer a strong message in favor of civil, unselfish behavior. The Oompa Loompas' recurring song is more often than not about what separates kids from clods.
Willy Wonka himself is a truly original character, a strange egg and potential madman. He forces the kids to sign an unreadable waiver and makes excuses not to answer direct questions. When confronted directly, he'll pause to offer odd detached statements: "We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams". Wonka appears unmoved by the "accidental" fates of the kids that break the rules: "Well, well, well, two naughty, nasty little children gone." Admitting that an ejected child and its parent have fallen into the factory's furnace, he adds, "Well, I think that furnace is only lit every other day, so they have a good sporting chance, haven't they?" On a boat ride through a tunnel lined with disturbing images of giant eyes and huge insects, Wonka purposely drives his passengers into a panic. He's a great substitute for Vincent Price!
Although some parents were not pleased, kids didn't feel threatened by the film's exaggerated punishments. They love watching the 'bad' children sent down pipes to unknown fates, shrunk by an ill-advised trip through a matter transmitter or turned into a giant blueberry. Added to the original is Wonka's sinister scarred competitor Mr. Slugworth (Günter Meisner from Wolper's superior combat film The Bridge at Remagen), who tempts each child with a fortune if they'll steal a sample of Wonka's revolutionary new candy, the Everlasting Gobstopper. While enjoying Wonka's twisted asides, adults can admire the fanciful art direction of Harper Goff, the design genius behind 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings and many other films. Filmed in a studio in Munich, Willy Wonka is more visually pleasing than the far more expensive Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The final revelations are satisfying, if not particularly useful in real life: kids will find that thoughtful and unselfish behavior can bring satisfying personal rewards, but not necessarily success and fortune. The Veruca Salts of the world tend to inherit daddy's factories, while the giant Wonka Works will likely fall into the hands of a multinational corporation. The Oompa Loompas will be fired and replaced with outsourced semi-slave labor in an undeveloped Third World country; to save an extra 1/100th of a cent per unit the greedy executives will allow the candy bars to be laced with cancer-causing chemicals. Just the same it's impossible not to feel the deserving Charlie's elation as he soars into the clouds -- even though Willy recites the words "Happily ever after" as if they were a yet undisclosed curse of adult life, something hidden in his unreadable disclaimer waiver.
Warner Home Video's glowing Blu-ray of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory makes Mel Stuart's movie look better than ever before, as we can see much farther into the detail of the amazing Wonka candy factory. The proper widescreen format helps as well, restoring Arthur Ibbetson's colorful compositions. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's songs are especially good. The story is so strong that we're surprised by every new musical number, which turns out to be brief, melodic, and to the point. Singing rights are granted to minor players as well as the star, something unheard of in a bigger-deal musical.
The extras are ported over from earlier deluxe DVD releases. The five Wonka kids speak on their own commentary and take part in a pleasing 2001 featurette called Pure Imagination. Relating the film's production story are producer David Wolper, writer David Seltzer and director Mel Stuart. Gene Wilder contributes some amusing observations, ending with a funny admonition to the now 42 year-old Paris Themmen -- who he claims was an impossible brat all the way through filming.
Also included are an original promotional featurette, a trailer and four sing-along songs. Warner's book-like packaging indeed contains a 37-page book with colorful photos. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is far superior to 70's children's fare -- I remember attending Disney's excruciating Napoleon and Samantha -- and still a treat equal or better than what's available today.
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