I suspect that I never warmed to the charms of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory because I was about 16 years old when it made its cinematic bow. I was far too “adult” and cynical to care much about a “kid’s movie”; thus, it’s not a part of my childhood — and seeing it as a kid seems to be a key factor to its cult status.
I can think of no other reason for being able to overlook the bad dubbing, the cheesy effects, the flat direction by Mel Stuart and, especially, those treacly Leslie Bricuse-Anthony Newley songs (did I really want to hear “The Candy Man” again in this lifetime?). I chide no one for this. I’m of a generation that overlooks the fact that there are some pretty lame songs in The Wizard of Oz, and that if Dorothy and Co. take about three more steps down the Yellow Brick Road, they’re going to run smack into the Yellow Brick Backdrop. Who am I to talk?
OK, so I do find the Oompa-Loompas somewhere between creepy and offensive, but I don’t think that makes me a thoroughly bad person. And actually, while rewatching Willy Wonka for this review, I did find the whole thing worth it for Gene Wilder’s alarming (often downright perverse) performance as Wonka, such that I think I begin to understand the film’s cult appeal a little better. Until the movie reveals — by necessity — its goo-filled heart at the very end, Willy Wonka allows Wilder free rein to create possibly the most subversive character in the history of children’s entertainment (at least since Soupy Sales, on his own TV show, exhorted youngsters to send him cash from their mothers’ handbags). There is nothing warm or cuddly about Wonka. The film is almost like W.C. Fields offering object lessons for children, and it’s frequently hysterically funny.
I’d watch Willy Wonka again myself — though not right away, thanks — for Wilder alone. Plus, it’s probably time to brush up on the movie before the Tim Burton remake is upon us.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Orbit DVD and the other merchants of West Asheville's Bledsoe Building offer a free outdoor screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as part of the new Walk-in Theater series on Friday, May 14, 2004, in the parking lot behind the building. Screening happens as soon as it gets dark (around 8 p.m.).]