Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushing glen,
We dare not go a hunting,
For fear of little men.
You see, nobody ever goes in...
And nobody ever comes out.
For some reason those words terrified me as a kid, spoken by a meager tinker outside the gates of the Wonka factory. It’s a minor moment in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but one that sets the tone for the movie: nobody knows what goes on inside the mysterious factory, not the characters or the audience. So as the movie takes both inside the gates, it’s an adventure to be anticipated and enjoyed.
The movie, adapted from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, tells the story of a world where the favored candy bars are made by Willy Wonka, “The Candy Man”. Wonka himself has not been seen in years, having locked his factory up tight to keep his secrets from being stolen by competitors. Suddenly a contest is announced: five golden tickets are hidden within five candy bars, each of which will allow one child and their parent on a tour of the factory. The world goes crazy trying to find the tickets, and eventually the five slots are filled by a variety of rude little children and our hero, the poor little boy Charlie Buckett. As the five children receive their tour around Wonka’s “World of Pure Imagination” they begin to disappear, undone by their own vices.
The true star of Willy Wonka, in just about every use of the word imaginable, is Gene Wilder. The man brings a mischievous, yet kindhearted, spirit to the character of Willy Wonka, exactly as I pictured Wonka to be like when I first read the novel. Wilder spouts off zaniness and wisdom in the same tone, always with a sparkle of knowledge in his eye. There’s just something in Wilder’s demeanor to comfort the audience that, no matter how odd the situation may be, Wonka is not only fully in charge of things, but fully aware of what was going to happen ahead of time. All of the characters and the audience are just pawns in Wonka’s world, and while that may not be much comfort for all of the characters, it is a lot of fun for those watching the movie.
Despite recent criticism that the movie doesn’t hold completely true to the novel, Willy Wonka is a classic movie. It’s the type of film that transcends time to provide entertainment for generation after generation. I was entertained by it as a kid, and I fully expect I’ll share it with my children. The fun of the movie, as well as the morals it attempts to promote are so core to our society that it will never lose its status as a brilliant and classic film. That said, it is very dated in places. As the characters travel through a tunnel that presents them with a variety of odd images one of the characters asks “Is this a freak out?” At another time a character announces something as “fab”. Due to its budget constraints, Wonka’s world is not as immersive as one would hope it to be, although it’s still pretty impressive for the time the movie was filmed. All this means is that while it is a classic, it is, unfortunately, not perfect. But the same will be said of a lot of modern movies twenty years from now.
While I certainly can see the opportunity to improve some of the lesser elements of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I have to question anyone’s logic at making a completely new version of the story (Tim Burton insists his film is not a "remake" of this movie). Gene Wilder’s take on Wonka is flawless, a near impossible character to improve on. Kids are kids, whether they are kids of today or kids of the 1960s. Rather than try to remake this classic picture, Warner Brothers should just clean up this film and put it out in theaters again. I guarantee it would draw an audience ready for another trip into a world of pure imagination.
Wonka has been through a couple of incarnations on DVD. First, as you might expect, a bare bones edition. Next came an edition with some decent bonus features although it was only released in full screen. Finally after a petition from fans of DVD and Wonka, an anamorphic widescreen edition hit shelves. You’ve got to give Warner Brothers some credit - it may have taken them a few tries, but they finally got it right.
The DVD is very kid-friendly, almost too much I might say. “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” plays during the menu as Wonka twirls his cane and Oompa Loompas peek out from behind the menu options. Once something is selected the doors to the Great Glass Elevator close and take you to whatever you choose. That would all be fine and good, but there is one section it gets too kid friendly: the cast list, which doesn’t give you any information about the cast, but rather a brief summary of each character including strengths, weaknesses, and their outlook on life. While I can appreciate that, I wanted to know what else Peter Ostrum (Charlie Buckett) had been in. There are also four songs from the movie set up as “sing alongs” for the younger viewers of the disc.
The film contains a commentary made up of the five actors who played the children, most of which aren’t actors anymore. At the time it was recorded, all five had not been in the same room since the movie had been filmed, so it’s very interesting to hear them catch up and reminisce about filming the movie. Through the commentary we learn who stole what props, how the older actors treated the younger ones, and who had a crush on who. It’s a very neat look back at the making of a movie by a group who would have been very innocent about making movies.
A half hour retrospective documentary gives a brief look at how and why the movie was made - originally as a promotional tool for Quaker Oats who wanted to make a new candy bar. This is the only place Wilder joins in on looking back at the film as he reminisces about his take on Wonka, and his insistence on the character’s first appearance as a crippled man who eventually somersaults to reveal... well, to reveal nothing is what it seems with anything the Wonka name is attached to. Wilder is obviously very emotionally attached to the character, even after all of these years. This is also where we finally get to hear what has happened to those child actors of the movie - what they've done and where they are now.
Also included on the disc is a original vintage featurette about the movie, the theatrical trailer (which shows how far the evolution of trailer making has come), and a photo gallery. It’s a disc chock-full of material, although I can’t help wishing for one more thing: a commentary track by people who would have been a little more aware of how movies were made in those days. Perhaps Wilder could have shared some stories with the audience, or the producers given us more information then in the short retrospective. Yes, it’s greedy to want more when the disc is already so full, but hey, this is about candy. I’m okay with being a bit greedy about that.