Children Need More Movies Like ‘Willy Wonka’
We’re all better off when we can appreciate ambiguity at an early age
By Todd Hill
Who are children’s stories really for — kids, or the kids’ parents? They’re primarily meant to be read — or watched — by the children, of course, but we shouldn’t imagine for a minute that grown-ups aren’t sometimes included within the intended audience as well.
This may help to explain why so many of the best children’s stories are so darn frightening, or at the very least twisted. And thank goodness they are. The blandest tales — and I’m thinking of pretty much all the Disney princess movies here — may be safe, reassuring parents that their kids won’t be subject to anything remotely traumatizing. But it’s also unlikely they’ll be nourished, or that the adults will be remotely entertained.
Those flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz” are the stuff of which nightmares are made, virtually guaranteeing that anyone who’s seen that classic 1939 children’s film will forever after steer clear of simians with wings. This is a valuable life lesson.
Kids who were exposed at a young age to the 1971 movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” may have come away deeply confused by that picture’s deliberately ambiguous tone, or puzzled by Gene Wilder’s perverse performance as the candy maker Wonka, which was nothing short of a genius move by the actor. Maybe those kids didn’t understand it when they were 6, but how else to explain their eventual embrace of the film years later, when “Wonka” went into heavy circulation on network TV during the 1980’s, and later became a hot commodity on home video?
Never underestimate your children. They know what they like, even if they can’t articulate why. And when they grow up and have kids of their own, they’ll be likely to share what they remember liking when they were young, and still treasure as adults.
Roald Dahl‘s children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (the name was slightly altered for the film) reflects the subversive imagination of its author. Truth be told, Dahl was a bit of a crank. The makers of the movie enlisted him to work on the screenplay, only to see him disown the final product simply because a variety of routine changes were made to the original story (characters added or omitted, the ending tweaked), as is common when a work moves from one medium to another.
What’s important is that the singular tone of the book was preserved, in fact enriched, on the screen. Wilder had a lot to do with that.
His character, candy impresario and man of mystery Willy Wonka, doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the movie when, cane in hand, he painfully limps out of the gasworks in Munich, Germany (standing in for the candy factory, and still standing). This subdues a large crowd of children and their parents, who then break into a combination of delighted and puzzled expressions when Wonka suddenly performs a somersault and leaps back to his feet right in front of them. From that point until the film’s final sequence, neither Charlie nor his grandfather, nor the other bearers of those precious golden tickets, nor we in the audience are entirely sure what Wonka’s really about or where any of this is going.
It’s noteworthy, and telling, that every member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python was itching to play Wonka. No doubt they picked up on the kindred sense of humor in Dahl’s story, but they weren’t stars yet at the time, whereas Wilder had already headlined the 1967 Mel Brooks film “The Producers.”
While “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is largely cherished today, re-watching the film is bound to expose just how uneven it really is — not to mention simply odd. The unevenness is something most of us are now willing to overlook, while the picture’s oddness only causes us to cherish it all the more.
Let’s admit it — the movie starts off at a really slow boil, as too many minutes are devoted to needlessly meticulous exposition, all of which boils down to a handful of kids from around the world getting their hands on golden tickets, randomly distributed in Wonka bars, that allows them to tour the secretive chocolate factory.
Up to that point, the movie is not a little dreary, as much is made of Charlie Bucket’s poverty while the world’s privileged classes buy up Wonka bars right and left. Curiously, this portion of the film was shot in Munich, dripping with Old World visuals, while the screenplay feels very modern and media-savvy, yet another disconnect that manages to keep viewers just a bit off-kilter.
Once inside the candy plant, the movie finally takes off. Colors suddenly pop, and director Mel Stuart, previously known for 1969’s “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” fills the frame with all manner of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” affectations, even a loopy bit of forced perspective.
Dahl’s original story, of course, didn’t include music, a new addition for the movie (and yet another change that Dahl objected to). Most of it is forgettable, save some little bits sung by the Oompas Loompas (more on them below), and most especially the rather lovely ballad “Pure Imagination,” which a number of artists have covered in recent years, yet another example of this film’s staying power.
The songs accompany the heart of the picture, and keep pace with the story’s moral message, since every children’s story must have a moral message. One by one, the bratty kids on the Wonka tour have their comeuppance — one puffs into a giant blueberry, another gets sucked up a tube while one more falls down a chute, and the last — obsessed by television — becomes miniaturized so as to fit into the screen. “Help. Police. Murder,” Wonka deadpans as the parents of the lost children panic.
Dahl, however, is also scolding the parents, which only makes sense, since children don’t learn their bad behavior in a vacuum. Indeed, it’s probably the parents who deserve most of the blame, which perhaps explains Wonka’s nonchalance over the kids’ uncertain fates, if anything does. “I think that furnace is only lit every other day, so they have a good sporting chance, haven’t they?” he says, not so reassuringly.
Even Charlie isn’t immune to the punishments as he and his grandfather, played by a game Jack Albertson, sneak a few gulps of a fizzy lifting drink and soar, nearly getting ripped to shreds by an industrial ceiling fan. This later jeopardizes Charlie’s promised lifetime of chocolate, until, in despair, he returns to Wonka a pilfered everlasting gobstopper, a good deed shining in a weary world that brings the movie to its heart-warming conclusion.
Just prior to this gesture, an incensed Wonka explodes at Charlie and his grandfather for their fizzy lifting escapade — still more classic Wilder, and the most dramatic example yet that this Wonka is a seemingly dangerous character. But would such a bad person take the trouble to adopt the maligned race of Oompa Loompas as his own?
As Wonka explains earlier in the film, it was he who rescued them from Loompaland, where they were routinely set upon by Wangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwangers and Vermicious Knids.
In early versions of Dahl’s book, Wonka’s workers were depicted as African pygmies, which obviously had an unfortunate connotation, leading Dahl to make some changes to the characters in later editions. In the movie the Oompa Loompas are no less creepy, played by midgets with orange face paint and green hair.
The Munchkins from the Land of Oz are charming by comparison. Why so much children’s literature features little people, however, is a question for another time.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.