FILM (1971)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum
Director: Mel Stuart

While the Harry Potter and Twilight series might temporarily lead the children's best-seller lists and force entire families begrudgingly into the multiplexes, any parent and primary school worth their salt knows better.

Children's library 'D' shelves everywhere are loaded with some of the finest works of imagination ever written - namely, the books of Roald Dahl. They have enchanted generation after generation of young readers with clever combinations of fantastical adventures, wicked adults and innocent children, timelessly preparing any prepubescent for the cold, cruel world ahead of them.

Dahl's most famous book is undoubtedly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first adapted as a big-screen musical in 1971, with a minor title change focusing on the story's more memorable lead character (in truth, a clever marketing ploy to introduce Wonka Bars to the real world). Coming just a few years after the Swinging 60s, at a time when drug experimentation was at an all-time high, Willy Wonka took its tale and turned it into a Wizard of Oz for a more experienced age.

Five children - four brats, one kind heart - each come into possession of a coveted golden ticket, giving them entrance into a mysterious, magic factory run by a mad scientist wearing a top hat and tails. The film's simple story acts as a jumping-off point for a host of different levels, from its highly stylised strangeness to an unsettling undercurrent that offers a junior morality tale.

Immediately apparent is the film's stunning sheen. A psychedelic trip through a world of new delights where candied dreams become reality, its look is very much of its time. From giant mushrooms filled with cream to flowing rivers of chocolate, and the requisite 'bad trip' of a boat ride gone wrong, Willy Wonka took its psychedelia-infused era and channelled all that was funhouse (and sometimes frightening) about it into a children's paradise.

Dahl actually hated the movie, with its candy-coloured look being one of his major gripes. He disowned it for its heavy focus on Wonka over Charlie - but it's Wilder's eccentric routine that holds the film together. His off-kilter Wonka is played with bizarre brilliance, at times caring and kindly, at others mean and sinister.

But behind its primary-coloured visuals and wacky Wonka lies what was always most important to Dahl: his hallmark life lessons. Because at its core, the film is about morals, with Wonka's slavish Oompa-Loompas (above) singing not-so-subtle songs about right and wrong as each of the four brats meet their dark demise.

It's true that more faithful adaptations of Dahl's books exist, but none captured the exuberant spirit and wicked playfulness of his work as well as Willy Wonka. And the story's everlasting themes of morality still resonate with the youth of today - something Tim Burton forgot with his visual-heavy remake in 2005.