Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson, Roy Kinnear, Julie Dawn Cole, Leonard Stone, Denise Nickerson, Dodo Denney, Paris Themmen, Michael Bollner, Aubrey Woods, Diana Sowle, Ursula Reit, Gunter Meisner, David Battley, Peter Capell, Werner Heyking
Written by: Roald Dahl, David Seltzer (uncredited), based on a novel by Roald Dahl
Directed by: Mel Stuart
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 100
Date: 06/30/1971

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hard Candy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was too young to see it when it was brand-new, so I must have seen it either in a re-release or on television. Regardless, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory became one of the most enchanted, enchanting moviegoing experiences of my childhood. But perhaps some things should remain in childhood. Seeing the movie again now with my own son, in a super-deluxe new Blu-ray set, I can see its flaws as well as its glories.

To start, I'm not sure that Mel Stuart was the best man for the job. I don't know much about him other than he didn't seem to ever make anything else nearly as notable as Willy Wonka. He has more credits as a producer than as a director, and he seems to have worked primarily in television and documentaries. The movie, though it runs an even 100 minutes, seems ill-timed. Now with the aid of a digital timer, I notice that it takes a full 45 minutes before we get to the factory and meet Mr. Wonka.

This first 45 minutes seems a bit grungy now, though perhaps that's a product of early 1970s film stock (and it is partly corrected by the stunning new Blu-Ray). Stuart seems awkwardly trapped between fancy and realism in many scenes. When Charlie (Peter Ostrum) finds his golden ticket, a crowd gathers around him, and it feels uncomfortable, more like an angry mob in a newsreel than joyful revelers. Even some of the scenes inside the factory don't really seem to be lost in the moment; it's more like a cameraman dutifully filming some spectacular sets.

However, when the movie does actually reach the factory, and Gene Wilder takes the stage, the movie is saved. Wilder was in the middle of an incredible run of subtle comic performances, including Bonnie and Clyde, The Producers (for which he received an Oscar nomination), Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, and he was at the height of his powers here. If you're a kid, Wonka seems magical, but watching it now, he has a frightening combination of warmth, psychosis, and sadism.

In certain scenes, Wilder's eyes blaze with a kind of vengeance... he can barely conceal his annoyance at the vulgar, obnoxious children that have come into his factory. At other times, he shows genuine pride and affection. He's totally unpredictable, and enduringly slippery, never more so than in the infamous boat ride sequence, which scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid. He's a fascinating genius that, if he were real, would be the subject of constant speculation. It's a masterful performance.

For the record, Jack Albertson plays a jovial Grandpa Joe, Julie Dawn Cole is Veruca Salt, Denise Nickerson is Violet Beauregarde, Paris Themmen is Mike Teevee, Michael Bollner is Augustus Gloop, and Aubrey Woods kicks off the film by singing "The Candy Man." Roald Dahl himself wrote the screenplay, after having written the screenplays for You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The movie received one Oscar nomination, for "Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score," but lost to Fiddler on the Roof. Wilder received a Golden Globe nomination.

See also Tim Burton's remake: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

The massive new set from Warner Home Video comes with Blu-Ray and DVD copies of the film, plus a third disc (a DVD) filled with extras (a documentary, commentary track, vintage featurette, etc.) The set also includes a beautiful full-color book, reprints of original production correspondence, a pencil box with scented pencils and an eraser, and a chance to enter a contest.

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