Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

For all its slightly forced appeals to childhood whimsy and the freedom of "a world of pure imagination," the 1971 musical film adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was originally planned as a down-to-earth commercial stunt. Quaker Oats financed the film to promote the Wonka Bar, a new candy-bar concept that never got off the ground. That may explain why Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (Quaker insisted on the name change in order to give its product more prominence, according to a featurette on the film's new 30th-anniversary DVD release) sometimes feels like a program-length advertorial—not for chocolate, but for an innocence and playful fancy that it claims to respect, but can't quite achieve. Dahl's book, one of his many captivating and unsettling junior morality plays, centers on five children—four shrill, cartoonishly spoiled brats and one hard-working, achingly sincere moppet—who win a coveted tour through a mysterious factory run by Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), a confectioner whose fantastical candy creations are world-renowned. Director Mel Stuart sticks relatively close to the letter, though not quite the spirit, of the book, as he tracks the kids and their ill-behaved parents on a self-conscious, artificial-looking journey through a collection of architectural illusions and psychedelic wonders. But even all the stylized strangeness fails to keep the children's worst impulses in check. One by one, they meet unpleasant and poetically just fates, while Wilder spouts quirky non sequiturs and his employees, little orange men called Oompa-Loompas, hammer home the moral lessons with catchy, spooky songs occasionally set to garish animation. For a children's film, Willy Wonka is surprisingly malevolent, which is most of its fun. "Well, well, well! Two naughty, nasty little children gone, three good, sweet little children left," Wilder comments with knowing, acidic sweetness, after the Oompa-Loompas have finished singing the latest misbehaving child out of the picture. But the refreshing malice and twisted whimsy only kick into high gear after 45 minutes of plodding setup and film-padding songs, including the classic "The Candy Man." Until Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory finally appear to liven things up, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory drags along drably, in spite of its stabs at absurdist humor. (Picture a Wizard Of Oz where the Kansas scenes take up half the film.) The new DVD rounds up all five of the Wonka kids for a 30-year reunion, and sets them loose together on a commentary track that's largely centered on the discomfort of various stunts. In that commentary's most telling and hilarious bit, the former child actors admit that they've each seen the film many times, up to the point where their own roles end, after which they lost interest. Dahl fans, nostalgic viewers, and parents looking for G-rated material that ventures beyond blandness may want to take the hint and just watch the bits that interest them most, starting with Wilder's memorable first appearance.


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