The 1971 production of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is quite legendary, with a brilliant performance by Gene Wilder (1933-2016) and all sorts of crazy stuff going on.
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film is a musical fantasy adventure with some remarkable set pieces.
It was ahead of its time. But as with the likes of Watership Down (1978), it’s one of those kid’s films that freaks you out a bit and teaches brutal life lessons. Hurray!
Gene Wilder’s Wild Adventure in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Directed by Mel Stuart (1928-2012), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is about Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum, now 64) who’s from a poor English working class family.
He works as a paperboy and loves sweets! And the local chocolate factory, run by the enigmatic genius Willy Wonka, captivates his attention.
One day, Wonka announces there are five Golden Tickets hidden in his chocolate Wonka bars. Anyone finding the tickets is set to receive a trip around the factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.
Charlie lives with his widowed mother and bedridden grandparents. That includes Grandpa Joe, played by Jack Albertson (1907-1981).
Sure enough, out of the blue, Charlie lucks out and gets a Golden Ticket! Holy cow! And he delightedly races home to celebrate with his family.
And this leads to… Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. And the entrance of Willy Wonka is legendary.
There’s something about Wilder’s crippled gait as he arrives that just captivates everyone. We remember watching it for the first time and you’re quite shocked by his arrival.
Only for Wilder to do one of his physical feats and wow you on the spot.
Wilder was absolutely insistent this be his character’s introduction. He would have refused the part if this had been dropped.
He wasn’t a conventionally good looking movie star the way, for example, Marlon Brando was. But he could sing, dance, was very funny, and carried himself like a star.
And what he does with Wonka is very impressive.
He adds an air of lunacy to proceedings. Once the kids and their parents are into the factory, it’s as if he’s invited them in to meet their doom.
As the plot progresses we’re introduced to the Oompa-Loompas (Wonka’s orange employees) and go on a psychedelic boat trip.
Pretty disturbing, right? But not uncommon for Dahl’s work. The Twits (1979) has a lot of black humour and maliciousness to it.
The made-for-TV film BFG (1989) is much more child friendly, but still has some super disturbing stuff going on.
Kids getting kidnapped during the night by enormous obese monsters. Lovely!
And you can think of other films like Return to Oz (1985) and The Wheelers for other creepy, scarring movie experiences for kids!#
But for Willy Wonka, it’s like he’s providing a tour ramped up with psychological horror.
The large German kid allows gluttony to get the better of him and is sucked into a pipe. A spoiled brat kid called Violet (Denise Nickerson) gets blown up into a giant blueberry.
Charlie and Grandpa Joe are the only two to survive the whole ordeal, but Wonka plays one final test on them.
As it turns out the whole Golden Ticket thing was a test to find someone worthy of inheriting his factory.
They promptly head to the Wonkavator, a multi-directional glass elevator, and blast up over England in celebration. Hurray!
Well, what a film, eh?! Anyone who saw this as a kid will have it burned merrily into their memory.
Everything about it is magical. Disturbing, at times! But magical.
Whilst the special effects have dated a bit, they maintain a charming appeal about things. But what makes Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is Gene Wilder’s performance.
He was kind of the Robin Williams of his generation, with a lot of manic energy and scary adult complexities he added to the role.
Which is great! Had Wonka been a kindly old geezer, or something, the film just wouldn’t be as memorable.
But there’s no denying it’s a very strange film. One where the narrative is quite bleak and remorseless at times.
Yet it does have a homely, comforting quality it’s built up thanks to the generations of people who grew up watching it.
Now it’s got the power of nostalgia behind it. And whilst the film may be over 50 years old, it’s lost little of its appeal.
As the 2005 remake with Johnny Depp displayed. That one just isn’t close to the appeal of the original and no one remembers it. So there!
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Production & Legacy
The project came about after director Mel Stuart’s 10 year old daughter read Roald Dahl’s book and asked (or demanded) her father to make a film of it.
He showed the book to a producer called David L. Wolper, whose great industry connections led to the project getting the green light from the studios.
Wolper then asked Dahl, with the author giving the go ahead. Dahl also got started with the screenplay. However, in the end he only produced a brief outline of the plot and the rest was finished by David Seltzer. He received no credit for that.
Spike Milligan was also Dahl’s lead choice for the role of Willy Wonka. Peter Sellers was also very keen on the role, as were all of the Monty Python crew.
Annoyed, Dahl left the production early on and had little input from there.
Much of the film was shot in Munich, Bavaria, rather than in an English village. In fact, Munich Gasworks was the area used for Wonka’s factory. And the town of Nördlingen was used for the final shots when the cast are in the Wonkavator.
Naturally, many of these areas are now popular landmarks for fans to visit.
Upon release, the film received positive reviews. Famed American critic Roger Ebert handed over 4/4 and thought it was perfect.
However, Dahl hated it and disowned the film after its launch. He thought it was too sentimental, plus he remained unhappy over Wilder’s starring role over Spike Milligan.
To make matters worse, the film wasn’t a hit. It took back $4 million off its $3 million budget. And then it drifted into obscurity. That may seem odd now, given its status as a classic. What went wrong… and then so right!?
Well, the rights to the film were eventually sold to Warner Bros. in the late 1970s. Just in time for a resurgence in the film’s popularity in the 1980s.
This was due to its reshowings on television, which won it a cult status. That popularity continued to grow thanks to the arrival of home videos and stores like Blockbuster.
On the 25th anniversary, a re-release launched in cinemas back in 1996. You can tell how much the film’s stock had risen, as this run raked in an incredible $21 million!
Since then, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has become one of the most popular cult films across the planet.
Not bad going, eh? Even if Dahl continued to hate the thing.