What Willy Wonka Means to Us
Look, I’m never going to be able to engage with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on any other level than that of a child. It just transports me like that. Yes, Grandpa is awfully spry for a guy whose been bedridden for years. Yes, children are harmed in the making of these chocolates. (I love that scene in Ted Lasso where Higgens says, “I hate to break it to you, Rebecca, but those children are dead.”) (Also, if Augustus Gloop hadn’t gotten murd… uh, sucked up into that tube, where would he and his family have sat in the boat?) Yes there are odd things going on with the Oompa-Loompas (genetically engineered slave labor?), that scene in the tunnel is psychedelic terror at its best, and maybe the glass elevator punching through the roof like a Victorian-era ballistic missile gave me nightmares. And Wonka himself is obviously insane – beyond all the stuff he does during the film, why is everything in his office cut in half?
Where was I going with this?
Oh! Yes, so I do engage with the film like a child. And yeah, maybe I was an odd child – but I loved ALL of that craziness. I loved that the movie was a candy-colored nightmare AND a dream. I loved that Willy Wonka is both crazy and loveable. I loved that the movie is scary and dangerous and just plain weird. I wish more films, especially kids films, would embrace the fact that kids enjoy a bit of darkness in their entertainment (well, some of them). Maybe Violet, and Veruca and Augustus all come out of the factory fine (and in the book they do), but I was always morbidly fascinated that in the movie we never really know. Wonka SAYS they’ll be fine, but look at his face during the boat ride. That performance was so over-the-top insane it terrified the actual child performers. And me. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is one of my favorite childhood movies, and I might just have to entertain that inner child – weirdo that he is – with another viewing.
Wonka the Wonderful
The title character of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is easily one of the most iconic characters in movie history. And it’s all due to Gene Wilder’s incredible performance. Although he’s also delivered fantastic and memorable performances in movies like Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles, his turn as eccentric candy entrepreneur Willy Wonka remains his career defining role.
Mixing stellar physical humor, clever and quick delivery of quips, and an undeniable magnetism, Wilder ends up inhabiting Wonka absolutely perfectly – all the way down to each magnificent little quirky detail.
Wonka doesn’t actually appear onscreen until about 40 minutes into the film. His character intro is one of the most memorable in film history. His slow and hobbled walk out of the factory is comically exaggerated. Famously, Gene Wilder had the brilliant idea of having Wonka’s cane get stuck in cobblestone, causing Wonka to tumble forward into a somersault, revealing that his legs are actually perfectly fine. Wilder’s rationale for the ultimate unfolding of the intro was to show the audience that Wonka was a fundamentally unreliable character.
“From that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” – Gene Wilder
The Wonka character continues to surprise as the film goes on. His charm draws us in, but his ability to appear on the edge of snapping and deviating into the sinister keeps us on edge. The hilarious disregard that he shows for the children finding themselves in understandably terrifying situations feels both inappropriate and unavoidable. In the film’s final moments, his outburst at Charlie and subsequent reversal highlights the character’s unhinged nature and irrefutable appeal.
It cannot be reiterated enough; Wilder is larger than life in this role. He creates magic with his eyes and wonder with his words.
The role cements his status amongst the immortal. You’re probably familiar with the “condescending Wonka” meme that circulates the internet – need I say more? In case I do, I’ll leave you with this: Wilder kept his battle with Alzheimer’s quiet publicly, partially because of the joy he sensed in people when approaching him about how much his role as Willy Wonka meant to them.
A World of Pure Imagination
One of the most brilliant aspects of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the set and production design. The contrast between the drab, gray, cold setting of Charlie’s town versus the colorful, magical, fantastical world of Wonka’s factory is quite jarring. However simple this choice in cinematic storytelling is, it’s central to what makes the movie work so well.
Charlie’s story is a classic rags to riches tale. Early in the film we see that his family describes having a loaf of bread for dinner as a “banquet”. He is the poorest of the poor. Finding a golden ticket is nothing more than a pipe dream for him.
While other kids have the means to purchase hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of Wonka Bars in hopes of finding a ticket, Charlie is only able to purchase three. Even getting the third bar proves to be a full ordeal for him. Only with the serendipity of finding some money in a sewer drain is Charlie able to purchase that third and fateful chocolate bar.
Once we enter the actual chocolate factory, the fears of the harsh realities of the real world are replaced with the absurd possibilities of Wonka’s “funhouse”. Each room is more extravagant than the last. It’s filled with trick doors, gizmos and gadgets, edible wallpapers, Oompa Loompas (of course), and a nightmarish boat that sails a chocolate river.
Although potential danger lurks around almost every corner in Wonka’s factory, something that is sure to amaze lurks around those same corners. Giant geese lay golden eggs, gum turns people Violet, elevators break ceilings, and those darn Oompa Loompas can’t stop singing about all of it.
Wonka’s Factory is a dreamworld for Charlie and audience members alike. The kooky of makeup of it is beyond our wildest imaginations. The surreal nature of the factory deserves as much exploration as possible. That’s why Charlie inheriting the Wonka empire at the end is inspiring. All of his wildest dreams come true.
As he overlooks the whole town, Charlie is finally on top of the world where he deserves to be. His perseverance, integrity, and genuine kindheartedness leads him to a life where he can live happily ever after as the man who got everything he ever wanted.
The Candy Man Can
It’s probably a safe assumption that no other movie has produced an entire candy brand. In order to help with promotion of the film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory producer, David L. Wolper, convinced the Quaker Oats Company to start the Willy Wonka Candy Company.
The success of this move seems obvious now. Wonka candy is almost more ubiquitous than the film itself. People can still be found enjoying candy like Nerds, Fun Dip, and Everlasting Gobstoppers. However, at the time, something like this was unheard of. Before the days of blockbuster releases being paired with a massive marketing campaign, movie releases were just movie releases. They weren’t overblown events, nor were they “cultural resets” as the kids like to say. They were just movie releases.
However, with a movie about an over-the-top candy magnate, an elaborate marketing campaign tie in feels more than appropriate. The candy looks so appetizing in the film. It’s only right that we get the pleasure of enjoying the same yummy snacks at home as well.
When the candy store clerk beautifully sings in the movie’s opening scenes that the candy man makes the world taste good, he was apparently talking about both the fictional world of the movie and our real world.
“The Candy Man Can” is one of many great tracks featured in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Although, it’s not necessarily a musical Wonka has some super catchy original tunes. It’s just another bizarre ingredient in the beautiful alchemy of the film’s winning formula.
I distinctly remember Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory being the first movie I watched on a DVD. The magic of the movie popped off the screen in a way that I never experienced while watching VHS tapes. A new world of cinematic joy entered my life. Much of that joy was simply due to the fact that Wonka happens to be a spectacular movie.
Few movies elicit the same levels of excitement out of me that this one does (especially a movie I’ve seen so many times). I get something akin to butterflies in my stomach whenever I watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; a giddy thrill.
This film has always had a special place in my heart. Now it also has a forever place in the Canon.
Welcome to the Canon, Willy Wonka. We’re lucky to have you.
Share your Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory trivia or memories down in the comments below!