Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 27, 2014

Recent Watches: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Fantasy (1971)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” started out as a purely mercenary effort that wound up being a classic anyway. The film came about because producer David L. Wolper was working with Quaker Oats on new ways to promote a candy bar they wanted to make. Deciding a film based around a chocolate factory would be a great tie-in, Wolper talked Quaker Oats into funding the movie. It’s a famous anecdote that when the Wonka Bars made it out, they actually melted on the shelf . It’s probably just as well because “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” gained a legacy extending far pass selling some candy bars.

During my recent review of “James and the Giant Peach,” I referred to Roald Dahl as the Children’s Author Who Didn’t Fuck Around. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a far more whimsical then “James” but concern similar themes. Both stories feature a down-on-their luck child protagonist. Both James and Charlie struggle with adversity. Both stories pile on fantastic settings and wish fulfillment. In the end, both boy protagonists succeed through the sheer goodness within them. Despite both Charlie and James being good kids, they live in immensely cynical worlds. The outside world of “Wonka” is filled with greedy, obnoxious, mean-spirited, and stupid people. The magical factory is presented as a respite from the shit hole the rest of the world is.

Of course, the Chocolate Factory is hardly free from danger. Over the years, the movie has actually become infamous for how creepy and dark it can be. The factory tour is actually a test of morals for the children. All of the exaggerated, awful little shits are exterminated throughout the tour, mostly through their own stupidity and assholery. Augustus Gloop is sucked up into a giant pipe, shot through it by pressurized chocolate. Violet Beauregard’s body expands out into a giant blueberry. Veruca Salt falls down a shaft into an incinerator, her father following after. Mike Teevee has his atom tore apart, shot through space, and reassembled at a smaller level. Is this a kid’s movie or a horror film? Of course, Wonka mentions how all the children will be put back to normal and a scene showing just that was originally planned. However, I don’t know if I believe Willy. I think those fucking kids are as dead as dog shit. This doesn’t mention other bizarre, dark elements like the psychedelic boat ride through a tunnel or Charlie and Uncle Joe almost being torn apart by giant fan blades.

The darkness of the film has actually been over-exaggerated over the years, with Wonka sometimes being imagined as a Satanic figure, tempting the children with chocolate and punishing them when they fall for it, the Chocolate Factory as a Garden of Earthly Delights. In truth, Wonka is more of a weird, Old Testament father figure. He upholds the moral certitude, rewarding those that are good and those that are bad. Of course, Roald Dahl had extremely peculiar ideas of what was bad behavior. All of the bad kids are obnoxious but none of them deserve their grisly fates. Augustus is a glutton, Violet is a bit of a nasty gossip, Mike is obsessed with TV. Even Veruca, easily the most despicable of the lot, is only an entitled proto-bitch. Ultimately, the kids are being punished for being snitches and talking to Slugworth. (Slugworth is a sinister figure, his German accent suggesting a Nazi and the way he corners the kids suggesting a child molester.) The truth is Roald Dahl was criticizing behavior he found annoying, like chewing gum all the time or preferring television to reading. It’s not exactly the most subtle, or deep, of commentaries, especially since the Oompa-Loompas spell the morals out. I guess my point is there’s a lot of weird, fucked-up shit beneath the surface here.

The darkness in the film was perhaps introduced to temper the whimsy at its heart. The film is ultimately a story of childhood wish fulfillment, of a little boy proving purer then his peers and receiving endless rewards for it. Even though Dahl criticizes gluttony, the Chocolate Factory is a glutton’s dream. The production design and the sets are incredible. The candy room, with its river of chocolate and giant gummi bears growing on trees, is one of the most fully formed cinematic settings this side of Oz. It’s all edible, even the flowers, which form perfect little teacups. Other sets are impressive too, like the room covered in black and white stripes (No wonder Tim Burton would remake this!), the sterile white shrinking room, or Wonka’s office, with all the furniture cut in half. The film widely depended on the Factory being sold as a fantastic alternate universe, which the movie wildly succeeds at.

The amazing set design has a lot to do with it but Gene Wilder probably deserves the most credit for the film’s iconic status. Wilder brings a true amount of quirkiness to the part. He tumbles on-screen. He interjects foreign language phrases into his speech. Wilder’s delivery is incredibly spaced out. He makes Willy Wonka a truly otherworldly character, a playful, whimsical edge to every line of dialogue he says. It’s easy to buy Wonka as a moral decider since Wilder’s performance is so fantastic. The other actors in the film are good, especially the super bitchy Julie Down Cole or the spry Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe. Even a solid performance, like Peter Ostrum as Charlie, is overshadowed by Wilder’s incredible work.

Roald Dahl, not an easy to satisfy man, wasn’t pleased with the final film, mostly because it was a musical. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate” was one of the last big musicals to come from a major studio, just as the formally evergreen genre was dying out in the early seventies. Much of the music has become iconic. And rightfully so. “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” is a great, lively number, perfectly capturing the moment when a child is happy. (And how infectious that happiness can be, when Grandpa Joe leaps out of bed for a reprise.) “Pure Imagination” is easily the best song in the film, Wilder’s soft delivery and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s perfectly whimsical lyrics and music combining to make a classic. Oompa-Loompa song is the big sing-along number in the film, one of the few times when the film’s otherwise stale direction comes to life with great choreography. If it wasn’t for the catchy Oompa-Loompa song, “I Want It Now!” would easily be the most memorable song in the film. Cole’s absolutely venomous delivery of the lines is incredible. The only song in the movie that isn’t memorable is the maudlin “Cheer Up, Charlie,” a soft, slow number that drags the pacing down.

The iconic elements of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” are good enough that its easy to overlook the weaker parts. The first act is incredibly slow moving and the movie doesn’t truly come to life until the kids get to the factory. Some of the performances are pretty exaggerated and not always in a good way. The ending is a non-entity, the story clamoring to a halt after Charlie is the last kid standing. Still, I count myself as a Wonka fan because of Wilder’s great performance, the catchy songs, and surprisingly potent, dark undertones. [8/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

Entertainingly odd and wildly weird is the way that I'd describe this movie. From Charlie's bed-ridden grandparents to the indescribable boat ride to the Oompa Loompas, it's a bizarre but fun film.

Gene Wilder's Wonka disposes of the children who break the rules and only little Charlie Bucket proves worthy of Wonka's reward. Everything is bright and wonderful here for the most part, a land of candy that is still amazing to watch today. Wilder is perfect in every single frame, teetering from nurturer to psychopath between breaths. The monologue he gives on the boat ride is a thing of nightmares and I really like the scene near the end where Wonka loses it in his office with Grandpa Joe. "Good day Sir!!" indeed.

The way that animation is thrown into the mix during the Oompa Loompa songs is delightfully twisted. Moments like these really add to the strange creep factor in an otherwise happy film. This version of Roald Dahl's children's book remains superior over the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" remake.