I was eager to dive into the next film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, because I hadn’t seen the movie in many years. In fact, my first exposure to it was in a condensed, film-strip form in elementary school.
You remember those—still photos with audio clips from the film, plus additional narration to tie the summarized snippets together.
When I finally saw the full movie a few years later, I realized that I actually didn’t miss much in terms of major plot points, but that a film strip really drains a lot of the magic out of things like Gene Wilder’s performance as the (clearly insane) Willy Wonka.
This is a weird movie, but much of the weirdness stems from elements of Roald Dahl’s book (he also wrote the screenplay, although parts were rewritten when he missed deadlines, causing Dahl to disown the film). Among the odd elements are:
- Every couple have “matching” names (e.g. Joe / Josephine)
- The “four people living in the same bed for twenty years” plot point that, even as a child, freaked me out. It makes even less sense when Joe can suddenly walk without any difficulty. What a waste of 20 years!
- Many of the adults seeming to be pedophiles
- What country are we in? It’s seems fairly obviously to be England, except that it looks like Germany, and all of the kids are American, as are Wonka and Charlie’s family. What happened in the alt-history of Wonka World that led to this bizarre outcome?
- Speaking of which, Charlie’s mother at one point says, “There are 100 billion people in the world . . . ” (emphasis mine). What year is it supposed to be? Alternatively, can this discrepancy be explained by the existence of Oompa Loompas (who are presumably included in Mrs. Bucket’s figure)?
- I’m going to overlook the fact that Slugworth can get to wherever a ticket is discovered almost instantly. That’s an acceptable cheat, I guess. However, what I can’t excuse is a character with the last name “Teevee” who, you guessed it, is obsessed with watching television. Even for a kid’s book, this is insane.
- How does Grandpa Joe, who, as previously established, hasn’t set foot out of bed in two decades, acquire the impossible-to-find Wonka Bar that he produces from under his pillow and gives to Charlie?
- There are some random cutaways to little mini-skits (for lack of a better word) that don’t involve any of the characters in the rest of the movie. The purpose of these is to drive home the importance of the Wonka contest in humorous ways. I actually liked these a lot.
- Mere moments after wondering aloud why Violet doesn’t listen to Wonka’s warnings, Charlie and Grandpa Joe ignore Wonka’s warnings about drinking the fizzy soft drinks.
- Finally, Grandpa Joe’s reaction to Wonka’s refusal to give Charlie the lifetime supply of chocolate is an entitled absurdity. Wonka is correct: they broke the rules. And they’ve already had a day that exceeds any of their wildest dreams (remember: Joe is fresh off a 20-year stint in bed with three other people).
In the midst of that weirdness, we, the audience, learn several self-evident truths. The lessons we come to understand (via the singing Oompa Loompas) are as follows:
- Don’t eat too much chocolate.
- Don’t chew too much gum.
- If your kid is a brat, it’s your fault.
- Don’t watch too much TV.
Still, notwithstanding all of these mild complaints, the movie has an undeniable charm—especially Wilder’s Wonka and his apparent and ironic distaste for children.
The final scene is also memorable, and even emotional, as Charlie ultimately does the right thing because it’s the right thing, despite having every selfish reason not to, and despite his grandfather immediately setting off on a path of vengeance.
I believe the movie can best be appreciated as a dark comedy about how terrible kids can be, rather than as an ostensible family movie aimed at kids. On that score, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory succeeds.