Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
by Ken Eisler
It just so happens that I was one of that lonely number who actually liked Mel Stuart’s One Is a Lonely Number some five years back. Couple of Sundays ago I caught up with Stuart’s children’s-pic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, made at about the same time, and I like this one even better. It was fun, too, being part of an audience this time (at a children’s matinee) which patently appreciated the strengths of Stuart’s style. Both One and Wonka are characterized by a peculiar blend of sentiment and acerbity. At times, the sentiment in One tipped over into sentimentality. It was the acerbity, according to report, that got out of hand in Stuart’s contemporaneous feature, I Love My … Wife, a vehicle for the too-busy Elliott Gould of that time. Willie Wonka, a few cloying patches apart, strikes an admirable balance, it seems to me. It’s Gene Wilder, at the top of his form, who makes this uneasy amalgam work, but Stuart must surely deserve some of the credit for setting off and perhaps controlling this actor’s talents. He got an exceptionally good performance from Trish van Devere in One, plus a hilarious character bit from Janet Leigh. Wilder, cast as chocolate factory owner Willie Wonka in this one, doesn’t appear until the movie is at least half over, but his star turn more than repays the long wait.
Four dreadful children and one rather too nice little blond boy, each one the finder of a premium gold ticket in a Wonka chocolate bar, are rewarded with a guided tour of Wonka’s hitherto-impenetrable, Xanadu-gated factory. It’s a Magical Mystery Tour … but with concealed fangs. One by one, in the course of the tour, the four brats get their comeuppance, falling by the wayside in sardonically appropriate ways. Rich, spoiled, domineering little Veruka, the most egregiously bad egg of the bunch, is dispatched down a chute designed to receive non-viable Golden Eggs; Gluttonous, fat-cheeked little Augustus Gloop is swept away by the flowing stream of chocolate he can’t forbear invading. And precociously macho Mike Teevee, a gun-toting boob tube Western freak, when he interferes brashly with Wonka’s teleporter, is shrunk to a feisty homunculus.
As the conductor of this fateful tour, Wonka is graciousness itself: top-hatted, honey-voiced (he does more than justice to one of the syrupy Newley–Bricusse tunes), jaunty, suave, full of sly, literate asides. But the cane he carries has a way of unexpectedly whipping, causing the children to start back in fear. When he casually rumples the pint-sized John Wayne’s black hair, Wilder’s hand seems to linger just a moment longer than necessary; suddenly, he plucks one of the startled kid’s hairs out by the root. One obvious highlight of the tour—a Disneyland-like ride on the quaintly designed Wonka boat—turns into a 2001 nightmare when the boat glides into a tunnel and immediately begins mercilessly accelerating. Above the screams and squeals of the terrified passengers, Wonka’s voice, no longer honeyed, rhapsodizes about danger and death. The authentically manic Wilder quality carries this scene well beyond the usual domesticated cruelties of kids’ films, and perhaps beyond some smaller children’s tolerance for being scared, as well. It would be interesting to find out if this scene is in Roald Dahl’s original novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Dahl’s screenplay, in any case, yields other, less surrealistic dividends for adult chaperones. Our first sight of Mike Teevee, in his parents’ Arizona split-level, looks like a still from Bill Owens’ corrosive picturebook Suburbia. The kid, clothed like a cowboy and wearing his irons, is watching a vintage Western on TV and will not brook interruption by the real-live TV interviewers drawn by his celebrity status. When he finally does vouchsafe a reply to their questions, he says hurriedly, “I want a Colt .45 but my daddy says I can’t have it yet.” From the background of the shot, the proud daddy, with an indulgent adult smile, adds: “Not till you’re 12, son.” It’s Mike’s mother, though, who accompanies him on the factory tour, and she turns out to be a very positive lady who asserts, in response to Wonka’s story of a neverneverland peopled by dwarfs: “There is no such place. I’m a teacher of geography!”, only to get gently skewered later on when a mechanical device triggers a delightful burst of Mozart and she exclaims knowingly to the other tour members: “Rachmaninoff!!”
After all this slyness and wildness, it’s a bit disconcerting to be confronted with a straightfaced Horatio Alger climax in which poverty-stricken little Charlie, having passed a rigged test of his probity, learns he will inherit chocolate-baron Wonka’s factory. And yet: from the moment the ascending Wonka Bubble, in slow motion, bursts through the factory’s glass dome and soars into the outside air to command panoramic views of the red-tile–roofed town, it’s hard to keep a cool head. Even making allowances for this reviewer’s possible oversusceptibility to such end devices—the freezeframe on Van Devere’s long-delayed swan dive that concludes One Is a Lonely Number seemed equally evocative to me—this is an exhilarating close, and the young matinee audience was physically responsive to it in a way that would surely have gratified the makers of the film.
WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Direction: Mel Stuart. Screenplay: Roald Dahl, after his novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson. Art direction: Harper Goff. Editing: David Saxon. Special effects: Logan R. Frazee. Music and lyrics: Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley.
The players: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Roy Kinnear, Peter Ostrum, Michael Bollner, Denise Nickerson, Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, Dodo Denney, Leonard Stone, Ursula Reit, Gunter Meissner, David Battley.
© 1976 Ken Eisler