Despite finding my love for writing at a very early age, and eventually majoring in English in college, I was not a very voracious reader when I was little. I was a hyperactive only child, and when I wasn’t spending time with neighborhood kids, I was keeping to myself, organizing my toys, alphabetizing mine and my parents’ library of movies, or something fussy of that nature. That said, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory captivated me from front-to-back. Do you want to dazzle a young child? Say the words “chocolate factory” and watch the look of amazement wash over their face.
More than 50 years later, Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a wonderous display of imagination, energy, and welcomed sentimentality. It adapts the story with colorful visuals, memorable songs, and dimensional characters while adhering to the idea that a children’s movie should run the gambit of being both childlike and ambitious, much like the titular character himself.
The film is presented from the perspective of a young, working class boy named Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), whose job as a paperboy supports his four grandparents and mother. He is a boy of little means, which makes him the unlikeliest of individuals to win a contest from the mysterious and reclusive chocolate mogul known as Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). Wonka has hidden five golden tickets inside the wrapping of his famous “Wonka Bars,” and those who find them will be rewarded with a tour of his legendary factory.
Of course, Charlie finds the fifth and final golden ticket, and also happens to be the most likable of his peers who do the same. There’s the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner); the rich and spoiled-rotten Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole); the ultra-competitive Violet Beauregarde (Denis Nickerson); and the appropriately named Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), who has spent his entire young life watching television. At Wonka’s factory, all in attendance with one of their parents — with the exception of Charlie, who brings the youthful-at-heart Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) — the kids meet the eccentric proprietor of the confectionary (Gene Wilder) with many of them suffering severe consequences for disobeying Wonka’s rules.
Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is less a role model for children and more of a methodical genius who knows the kids won’t be able to stop themselves from acting on their desires. He’s hilariously smug and sarcastic at times, never richer than when Augustus “poisons” Wonka’s chocolate river by drinking from it only for him to fall in and nearly drown. “Help. Police. Murder,” Wonka utters in a soft deadpan when the boy’s mother demand he do something.
Beyond the morbid delight of seeing these bratty children get their comeuppance, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory serves as a technical marvel with gloriously colorized sets. Wonka’s factory is designed like a Rube Goldberg machine, with half the fun of the film stemming from how Dahl’s screenplay (which was largely revised by David Seltzer, who remains uncredited) takes us on the tour ourselves. Notable stops along the way show the engineering of Wonka’s “Everlasting Gobstoppers,” a candy designed for children with “little pocket money;” the creation of Wonka’s gum, which tastes like a three-course meal; and an all-white room where the eponymous creator is perfecting his “Wonka-Vision.”
And who could forget the Oompa-Loompas? Better yet, who could forget the songs? There’s no denying the charm of the first one in the film, which is “The Candy Man,” sung by a candy shop owner played by Aubrey Woods. “Who can take a sunrise / Sprinkle it with dew? Cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two? The Candy Man… The Candy Man can” Through all of Wilder’s adult-skewing cynicism and verbal lashings, not to mention the heinous (yet deserved) fates of these children, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has a lot of wonder and imagination to back up its premise, which is why it’s become one of the most indispensable films of its genre.
NOTE: As of this writing, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is available to stream on Max.
Starring: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, Denise Nickerson, Leonard Stone, Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, and Dodo Denney. Directed by: Mel Stuart.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!