Whilst past Dahl adaptations like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach have been firmly aimed at children, it has been proved that his stories can be made to appeal to both young and old. The brilliant Gene Wilder stars, as we look at 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Willy Wonka opens with Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum). The youngest member of a truly working-class family, Charlie lives with his hard-working mother, and two sets of bedridden grandparents. The definition of paupers, they all struggle to exist on little more than cabbage water, with a simple loaf of bread considered a luxury item. Big hearted Charlie works a paper route after school, to contribute what little he can towards his families meagre existence. It’s an ordinary day at school for Charlie when word comes in that Mr Willy Wonka is opening the doors of his factory for one day only. The world famous chocolatier has been a recluse for many years, since a fallout with now rival Slugworth. No-one ever goes in or out of Wonka’s factory, and it’s a mystery how he manages to produce vast volumes of wonderful chocolate.
The whole world goes Wonka mad, as literally millions of bars of chocolate are bought up, everyone hoping to find one of just five lucky golden tickets that entitles the bearer entry to a confectionary paradise. Charlie is no exception, and dares to dream that he has a chance as good as anyone’s, despite not being able to afford more than a couple of bars of Wonka’s favourites. Four lucky children find tickets, could Charlie possibly be number five?
Willy Wonka is almost a game of two halves. Charlie’s under privileged existence, and his dreams of sampling just some of the luxuries others around him take for granted, is heart wrenching. His love for his family, and particularly his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) are touching. Charlie inevitably finds his ticket, and the scene where Grandpa Joe staggers out of bed for the first time is genuinely moving, his song ‘I’ve got a golden ticket’ beautiful, despite his lack of a good singing voice. The first thirty minutes of Willy Wonka, the story of a poor hard working young boy achieving his greatest wish, are almost Dickensian.
Then Gene Wilder turns up, and the story is turned on it’s head. What starts off as a story of childhood innocence becomes a cutting look at what is wrong with the ‘youth of today’. Gene Wilder’s song, and the beautifully realised confectionary garden replete with chocolate waterfall are awe inspiring, a children’s fantasy land brought to splendid technicolor life. But despite the brightly coloured scenery, the tale takes a decidedly dark turn. Augustus Gloop’s gluttony, Violet Beauregarde’s passion for gum are their downfall, the greedy and spoilt Veruca Salt and square eyed Mike Teevee also get their just desserts.
Firmly a product of a more innocent time, Willy Wonka is none the less still relevant for our time. Ok, so the idea of the world coming to a stand still for a glorified Cadbury’s World tour is a little out of touch. And the wonderment of seeing people with brightly coloured hair and orange faces is now a mundane experience to anyone who frequents Essex nightclubs. But the concerns over greedy, overweight ASBO teens, obnoxious, addicted to TV are more pressing now than ever. Slugworth’s attempts at industrial espionage are an everyday occurrence in corporate America and Britain. And the idea of promotional chocolate wrappers was ahead of it’s time, today products of all kinds are subject to this style of marketing.
There are some good performances here. Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket is almost TOO sickly sweet, and most of the children and parents are passable. But Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe is wonderfully confident and understated. And the stand out performances by Gregg Kinnear and particularly Julie Dawn Cole as father and daughter Salts far outshine the other members of the tour party. But Gene Wilder owns the screen from his first appearance to the end. Known for great adult comedy roles, it’s perhaps ironic that his greatest performance came as a character in a children’s story.
A touching children’s story with wonderfully written songs, and a darkly comic undertone make Willy Wonka an amazing movie, with much for all ages to enjoy. If Anderson’s Mr. Fox turns out half as good as this, it’ll be well worth watching.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is on general release in the UK now, and opens in the US this Friday 13th November.