by Mel Valentin
In 1971, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," a musical/fantasy/family film was released to commercial indifference, but over time, it has become a cherished children’s classic, happily passed down between generations. Children who saw "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" on television or on video during the 1970s and 1980s have, in turn, introduced their children to the film’s enduring magic and, in some cases, back to the original novella written by Roald Dahl and published in 1964 as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." The film’s principal financier, Quaker Oats, renamed the film to capitalize on the hoped-for introduction of “Wonka Bars” by (the “Wonka Bars” failed, primarily due to a formula problem). The name change makes sense for another reason: Gene Wilder’s iconic performance in the lead role.Dahl wrote the screenplay for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but declared himself unsatisfied with the final product, in large part because the film’s producer, David L. Wolper and the film’s director, Mel Stuart, obtained the services of another screenwriter, David Seltzer, to revise the script (ostensibly to add dialogue around the musical numbers and to add a villain, missing from Dahl’s original screenplay). Dahl’s vocal dissatisfaction with the final product has led, almost 35-years later, to the primary justification for Tim Burton’s seriously flawed adaptation, which, in turning its focus from Charlie to Wonka, takes as many liberties with the source material as Wolper and Stuart once did. Having seen both films recently and having a nostalgic attachment to the original, it’s admittedly difficult to give Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory an objective appraisal. Caveat aside, the 1971 film has the benefit of standing the test of several generations of viewers, and after a recent revisit, mine as well. To be fair, whether Burton’s film will be embraced by generations of children remains to be seen. To the synopsis and review then.
"Skip Tim Burton's mess. Watch or revisit this one instead."
As anyone familiar with the source material will recall, the storyline in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory turns on five golden tickets hidden in bars of chocolate. Said tickets give the holder (and one adult) entry into Wonka’s confectionary paradise, a tour of the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Newscasters from around the (Western) world breathlessly share the latest news about the winners, beginning with Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a gluttonous German, then to Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), and finally, after all hope appears to be lost (including a fraudulent ticket found in Paraguay of all places), Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) finds the last golden ticket. Bucket, the poorest of the five golden ticket winners, is also the least spoiled and the most generous.
At the appointed date and time, the children and their parents. Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), one of four, bedridden grandparents who share a single bed, joins Charlie on his adventure/tour of the factory. Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), until this point in the film unseen, appears at the factory gates, first walking with a limp and a cane, then somersaulting to show his physical dexterity (and his propensity for bending the truth as needed). Willy Wonka, it seems, is the archetypal “trickster” character, functioning to reveal the other character’s faults, shortcomings, and inadequacies, while manipulating events according to a hidden agenda. As portrayed by Wilder, Wonka is definitely an exuberantly eccentric character (he has, after all, isolated himself from the rest of the world), while never losing his ability to charm or appear affectionate (even as he dismisses some of the children’s more inconvenient questions)
As expected, the tour of the chocolate factory goes badly, or at least badly for the self-interested, egotistical, utterly bratty children and their doting, over-indulgent parents. At each major stop, including a chocolate river that winds its way through a groovy, 60s-psychedelia-inspired tunnel, an invention room, a golden geese (who lay chocolate eggs) room, and finally a television studio that miniaturizes and transmits real objects across the airwaves, the children are tested and found wanting (temptation combined with self-indulgent behavior proves irresistible for most of the children). At each stop, the Oompa Loompas, a race of orange-skinned, green-haired little people enter to sing, what else, the “Oompa Loompa Song,” with a new stanza for each child’s error in judgment.
One child, of course, is left to win the grand prize (and a prize even grander than the grand prize), but not before a final test involving the nominal villain, Oslo Slugworth (Günter Meisner) and the “everlasting gobstopper.” Here, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory diverges from Dahl’s novella (much to the chagrin of some fans of the source material), as Wonka erupts in a temper tantrum, humiliating Charlie in the process as he decries Charlie’s behavior (actually a minor infraction). But Wonka’s tantrum does pass, even as both Charlie and the audience hold their collective breath at the next plot turn. Suffice it to say, in the greater context of the storyline and the double-grand prize, Wonka’s final test is understandable, if not necessarily excusable (it does, briefly, make him more recognizably human).
And while Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has little of Tim Burton’s visual flair or production design (with a $150-million-dollar budget to realize Burton’s visual ideas), it does benefit from Stuart’s better storytelling sense and pacing (unlike Burton’s stop-start approach to storytelling, complete with unnecessary flashbacks) and visuals appropriate for its time period. To obtain a seemingly timeless feel (and to save on the production budget), Willy Wonka was filmed in Munich, Germany, limiting the need for elaborate sets or special effects. Stuart’s film also benefits from more naturalistic, grounded performances. In particular, Gene Wilder’s central performance rarely strays into affected mannerism or eccentricity-for-eccentricity’s sake (as Johnny Depp’s performance all too often does in Burton’s adaptation).
On another, related note, Stuart and Wolper hired some of the best songwriting talent available at the time, Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse. Their songs, from the “Candy Man” song later immortalized by Sammy Davis, Jr., to Wonka’s signature song, are catchy, memorable, and more than likely to elicit a knowing smile (and even a sing-a-long) from viewers returning to the 1971 film after a lengthy interlude. Burton's film, even with the usually reliable Danny Elfman contributing the melodies and lyrics, falls far short in this area (the songs are also poorly integrated into the storyline).To take an educated guess and peer into the not-too-distant future, Tim Burton’s adaptation will be viewed as a misguided, overpraised misfire, a triumph of production design over storytelling. Ultimately, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" will remain the definitive interpretation of Dahl’s novella.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1187&reviewer=402
originally posted: 08/08/05 12:53:41