Film appreciation: Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum
Director: Mel Stuart

With its candy-cane colours, sugar-coated plot and sometimes syrupy musical numbers, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory could easily have been a saccharine children's fantasy in the mould of Mary Poppins (1964) or Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). But while the film is largely remembered as a kaleidoscopic feel-good fantasy for kids, its enduring cult appeal lies in the sinister ingredients that bubble just beneath the surface of its waterfall-churned chocolate river.

The movie is based on the 1964 book Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, a writer unparalleled in his ability to weave dark and subversive humour into wondrous tales for children.

The film preserves the essence of its source material by keeping Willy Wonka - played to perfection by Gene Wilder, three years before Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein cemented his place as one of the great comic talents of his generation - as a morally ambiguous character and by adding a macabre edge of its own.

The first half of the film is largely taken up by the search for the hallowed golden tickets hidden in bars of Wonka chocolate, prizes that grant their holders a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the reclusive candyman's fabled chocolate factory. But from the moment Wonka appears, the film becomes all about him and his dominion.

The first sight of Wonka is telling. Dressed in a bright purple frock coat and Mad Hatter-channelling top hat, he limps slowly towards the waiting crowd at the factory gates and starts to fall over before launching into a forward roll and landing with a flourish. This action was added at the insistence of Wilder, who reasoned that: "From that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."

Once inside the factory, the children begin to fall victim to a series of gruesome misadventures that are of their own making, yet seem custom-designed to provoke greedy desires in each one. Wonka's reaction is a mixture of indifference and manic glee, occasionally producing a tiny penny whistle to play a jaunty refrain after a naughty child gets his or her comeuppance.

In Wonka's world, temptations are legion and sympathy is in short supply for those who break his rules.

The dark side of Wonka's character is never more evident than the scene in which he takes his visitors on a chocolate river cruise through a mysterious tunnel. What begins as a cheerful voyage takes an ominous turn as the tunnel transforms into a psychedelic nightmare. Wonka looks positively deranged as he intones a menacing singsong verse while the boat, powered by Oompa-Loompa rowers (who, let's not forget, are dwarfs painted orange and wearing green wigs), hurtles through the darkness. Projections - including a centipede crawling across a man's mouth and a chicken having its head chopped off - flash on the wall.

When the ride ends, Wonka leaps off to show his guests the next attraction as if it never happened.

The obligatory happy ending suggests it's all been an act, and that Wonka is essentially a benevolent character. But it's hard not to see him as half-child, half-devil.