Those of us who were children during the late '60s and early '70s remember the kiddy movies of the time as a sorry, syrupy lot--as, I suspect, our parents do even more acutely. 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has much of the same saccharine quality around the edges, yet it has stuck in the Generation X psyche. People I know who grew up with the film have variously told me that it deeply frightened them as kids and that it was the object of cults on their college campuses. One even spontaneously broke into a tune from its score.
Perhaps the same generation that found a ludicrous ideal of home life in the Bradys was seduced by the idea of a candy factory created to conform to the sensibility of a man with a child's imagination--a kindred spirit. But unlike the Brady household, Willy Wonka's pop Eden had a serpent or two lurking in it. The Bradys hooked the Gen Xers by being--by design--utterly without dark corners; Willy Wonka, conversely, did so because of its dark corners.
For whatever reason, most of that age group--me included--seems to have seen the film more than once. It lent a character's name to Chicago power-pop band Veruca Salt, and it has been deemed worthy of a 25th-anniversary rerelease, opening locally this week at six Harkins theatres.
The worst of Willy Wonka lends itself all too well to candy metaphors. The unshakable signature tune, "The Candy Man," is sugary, as are most of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley numbers for the film. Peter Ostrum, who plays the boy hero Charlie Bucket with the pained expression of a martyr, is gooey. The pious moral lessons dispensed in song by the Oompa-Loompas, Wonka's diminutive laborers, are treacly, not to mention suspect--what are chocolate makers doing preaching moderation?
How could this cloying affair survive fondly in the memories of the kids who grew up with it? It's almost solely because of Gene Wilder's spooky, dreamily enigmatic performance--one of the best he ever has given--in the title role.
Working in his own spacy comic style, tossing off foreign phrases and literary allusions, never answering questions directly, Wilder gave his Wonka a streak of the unknowable, the irresponsible, maybe even the sinister. Wonka's freaky mood swings, his whimsicality, his opaque politeness all belie, even negate, the film's thin didacticism. You get the feeling Wonka hasn't strained himself heeding the Oompa-Loompas' dicta.
Even so dreary a song as "Pure Imagination" becomes lyrical when Wilder sings it in his delicate, lovely voice. But moments later, when the tour group he's leading is on an out-of-control boat ride, Wonka chants, "There's no earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going . . ." in that same dulcet tone. This time it's chilling because this guy's supposed to be in charge. Wonka is blithely unconcerned about the grim fates met by the other four children touring the facility with Charlie, and when, at the end, he snarls in rage at Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), it's quite startling.
It's all a ruse, of course--Wonka is just putting Charlie to the test, seeing if he's worthy to inherit the factory; although, why he'd entrust his operation to a goody two shoes like Charlie rather than to one of the more eccentric guests with whom he has so much more in common is hard to guess. But in spite of a requisite (and appropriate) happy ending, Willy Wonka has some real shadows, and some real bite, as any good kiddy movie should. For everything that's wonderful about The Wizard of Oz, who would remember it without the Wicked Witch?
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--M. V. Moorhead
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:
Directed by Mel Stuart; with Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Roy Kinnear, Julie Dawn Cole, Dodo Denney, Leonard Stone, Paris Themmen, Denise Nickerson and Diana Sowle.