Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 23: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams."

Roald Dahl's novels have been adapted countless times into films by no less filmmakers than Nicholas Roeg, Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Danny DeVito. Mel Stuart isn't a name that is likely to be associated with any of those directors as he was primarily a television producer and documentarian. In 1971 however, he stepped behind the camera for the first film adaptation of one of Dahl's children's novels, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

There are a couple of major misconceptions about this film that I would like to clarify before we go any further, many of them arose when Tim Burton's remake was released in 2005. Dahl himself wrote the screenplay, so there's no way he disowned the film and the film doesn't pander to children, talk down to them, or treat them as if they need a large set piece every couple of minutes to hold their interest. (Burton's film rather unfortunately falls into all of these traps).

Peter Ostrum plays Charlie Bucket, a boy living with his mother and four grandparents in utter destitution in England. They live near the chocolate factory of the world's premiere chocolatier, Willy Wonka, who has just announced that he is distributing five golden tickets in his chocolate bars that will permit the finders to tour the factory and have a chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Charlie's world is turned upside down by the prospect of winning, and the film spends its first forty minutes with Charlie and his dreams. Burton's remake gets him inside the chocolate factory in under twenty minutes, leaving no time for us to really get to know Charlie and live inside his world. This instantly makes this the better adaptation of the book.

Spending time with Charlie, sharing in his heartbreak and devastation each time a golden ticket is found somewhere else across the globe, hoping against hope that he'll be the next kid to find one, builds up a solid protagonist worth rooting for. Ostrum is a rather adept young actor, never forcing us to feel empathy for him. He earns it solidly through his plucky optimism and drives the film forward by never sulking or feeling bad for himself. He feels blessed to have a family that loves him so much that the golden ticket seems like it would just be almost a hollow wish fulfillment by comparison.

The plot is almost universally well-known, so there's no point in going through it point by point. Gene Wilder is the very definition of brilliant as Willy Wonka. He goes out of his way to make himself simultaneously unlikable and charming. He rides the line so deftly that his motives are never really clear until the final moments of the film. Charlie's been given an offer, as have all the other children, by Slugworth, one of Wonka's competitors, to bring him an everlasting gobstopper in return for ten thousand pounds. When Wonka unloads on Grampa Joe (Jack Albertson) at the end of the film for having stolen the fizzy lifting drinks, Grampa Joe says to Charlie, "I'll get even with him if it's the last thing I do," and tells Charlie that they're going to go give the gobstopper to Slugworth. Charlie stops, knowing that no matter how bad of a person Wonka seems to be, he doesn't deserve to be subjected to a petty revenge like this, and he returns the candy to Wonka. This sends Wonka into a fit of elation as he realizes that Charlie is the exact child he had been looking for to give the grand prize to, which is to take over his operation as chocolatier.

Dahl is shrewd as a screenwriter because he saw a flaw with his novel and fixed it. There was no true motivation for Willy Wonka in the novel to give Charlie the factory other than by virtue of the fact that he was the last child left. By introducing the notion of Wonka testing the children by sending his assistant out masquerading as Slugworth to plant the notion of selling him the gobstopper in the children's heads, he has a foolproof way of figuring out if any of these children are worth his time. It's borderline psychotic when you think about it, but it's to be expected of a virtual shut-in with little to no human contact. His reasoning to find a child to teach his secrets to as they'll carry on his traditions, rather than doing things their own way, is sound. Testing their virtue is a bit extreme, but when you're trying to find the ideal child, I guess it makes sense.

The film is filled with wonderful character actors. All of the children are good, particularly Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt. Roy Kinnear is also wonderful as her father, as is Leonard Stone as Mr. Beauregard (he has most of my favorite lines). It's also great to see Albertson and Wilder go toe to toe in the final scene, a nice little acting showcase in the midst of a kids' movie. I watched the movie yesterday with my five year old daughter Clementine and she really liked it. I thought she'd get bored, as I always remember myself as a child getting bored right around "Cheer Up, Charlie," but it held her interest for all 100 minutes.

Even though the effects and art direction seem archaic to me, she saw them as nothing short of the real deal and whimsical. She didn't notice the strings holding up Charlie and Grampa Joe in the fizzy lifting chamber, so I wasn't about to point them out. She thought they were really flying. At the end of the day, isn't that the real reason that films like this were made, to capture the imaginations of children and to reignite the child inside of adults? We talked afterwords about how awesome it would be to have one of those giant gummy bears from the chocolate room, bringing me instantly back to my identical desire as a child watching the film.

I'm happy to report that forty years on, Willy Wonka holds up, and likely will for another forty. As long as there's a generation of parents willing to share it with their children, when those children grow up to be parents, they'll want to share it with their kids. And isn't that what it's really all about?

Tomorrow I'll be reviewing The Boat That Rocked, released here in the US as Pirate Radio with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy.

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