Dir. by Mel Stuart - 1 hr. 40 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
The more I see "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," the more I love it. I don't even like musicals, but as a film, "Willy Wonka" is the gift that keeps on giving. But also, I glean something new from Wonka upon each repeat viewing. This time, it's apparent that this isn't light kid's fare, but instead a look into a dystopian drug-riddled hellscape that chews children up for fun and profit.
The first part of the film shows drug abuse as being aspirational: more money means better drugs. Even before the Wonka Bar craze hits, all of the children proceed directly from school to their dealer, where they huddle sweatily, coins in hand, waiting for the candy slinger to drop rocks in their hands so they can get their buzz on. Everyone except for Charlie (Peter Ostrum), who is too poor to fund a decent habit, and stands on the outside of the "candy shop," looking forlornly through the window at all the junk he won't be getting high on. Then, the mastermind behind this addiction pyramid scheme, Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) comes up with a diabolical scheme to tighten his grip on the pineal glands of the world: the Golden Ticket. Wonka has been reclusive his whole life, as drug barons usually are, and each of the five tickets randomly inserted into Wonka Bars grant the bearer a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the Wonka factory (and a lifetime supply of chocolate). Imagine the chaos; it's as if Pablo Escobar offered to fly five people to Columbia to see how cocaine is made, and then set them up with a never-ending line of nose candy to keep each of them twitchy and over-confident for the rest of their sure to be short-ass lives.
So who are the five poor souls doomed to an endless cycle of furious binges followed by unsuccessful rehab stints? Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a German lad who already has an insatiable appetite for anything that will fit in his mouth. Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), a relentless slave-driver who has cowed her parents into using their factory and the workers within to open Wonka Bars until a Golden Ticket is found, at which happiness and harmony will be restored. Violet Beauregard (Denise Nickerson), a gum-snapping little twat who takes every scrap of attention and the opportunity it affords to lord over her "friends," who I'm not even sure exist. And lastly, Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), a deluded kid who thinks he's a cowboy and snaps at his parents when they dare interrupt his westerns. After a Paraguayan hoax, Charlie goes scrounging for change in the gutters so that he can try to fit in with all of the other drug-addicts, finds a coin, and blows it all at the "candy shop." This time, Charlie hits the jackpot and pulls the fifth Golden Ticket. He narrowly escapes a fiending mob back to his house, where the news of this is enough to rouse his good-for-nothing Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) out of bed for the first time in twenty years (!) for a song-and-dance number (!!). Seems all that was holding Joe back was the family's nightly dinner of cabbage water, instead of a high-rolling diet of Wonka's finest.
Once at the Wonka factory, the children (and their weak-stomached family members) are forced to endure a series of harsh psychedelic stress tests, administered by Wonka himself and his battalion of Oompa Loompas (strange, small, singing orange men, whose cultural history is recounted by Wonka in the form of a 'Nam flashback), which ruthlessly weeds out four of the children until only Charlie stands. As it turns out, his inability to financially afford the same kinds and quantities of candy as the other children leaves him uniquely qualified to help out Mr. Wonka. As always, not getting high on your own supply is the route to success in the game of slinging sugar.
Despite the harsh parable "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" contains, it's an iconic film, and for good reason. It's jam-packed with ideas (the visual designs are routinely stunning), and literally bursting at the seams with flavor. I don't know if this is the movie that Gene Wilder is most famous for, but it probably should be. He's got an unhinged, manic energy that's not entirely benevolent, which makes even the smallest details within the film potentially dangerous. He's also playful, but in a mean-spirited way, which is kind of a delight to watch, especially when it's at the expense of awful, bratty children. "Willy Wonka" is airtight and flies by, and beyond that, it's a cultural touchstone. Most movies don't even try to lend ideas to the zeitgeist (it's not really something that's frequently accomplished by design anyways), but even still people make frequently references to Oompa Loompas and to Golden Tickets, which isn't half bad for a movie that's a shade over forty years old at this point. So go ahead, press play, and watch Veruca Salt get her just desserts. You know you want to.
5 / 5 - Theatre