Decades later, “Wonka” is still pure imagination


More than 40 years after it was released, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” can still capture the imagination of children and adults alike.

The scenery is still breathtaking, the songs still catchy and Willy Wonka is still completely bizarre.

The 1971 musical comedy, directed by Mel Stuart, will be shown at Hoquiam’s 7th St. Theatre on Friday, March 21 and Saturday, March 22.

“Wonka” falls into the same category of nightmare-inducing children’s movies as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Labyrinth” and “Alice in Wonderland.” None of these movies needed to be particularly violent or gruesome to captivate and scare generations of children. They’re slightly off-kilter and overly imaginative.

Even the basic concept of “Wonka” is strange: a candy-making hermit, Willy Wonka, searches for the perfect child to take over his factory. The movie is based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But avid Dahl readers will find the theme familiar. Many of his works — for example, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach — also focus on the idea that most adults are somehow flawed, and that only a child can be truly kind and innocent.

Instead of accepting applications for the job, he distributes five golden tickets hidden in chocolate bars. The children who find the tickets are given the chance to tour the factory and impress Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder.

Wilder perfectly captures the spirit of Wonka: an abrupt manner and an air of mystery, with a dash of downright creepy.

A 2005 remake of the film — Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” spent too much time developing a backstory for Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp). Wonka was depicted as the candy-obsessed son of an abusive dentist. The storyline completely destroyed the character’s sense of mystery. Some stories are better left untold.

The newer incarnation also relied too heavily on modern technology, and therefore failed to capture the whimsical essence that is Wonka. Only one Oompah Loompah (Deep Roy) was cast, and he was digitally duplicated.

In the 1971 movie Charlie Bucket — played by Peter Ostrom, who never appeared in another movie — quickly emerges as the movie’s protagonist. He’s shown as a poor, school-aged boy with a love for Wonka bars. His mother tirelessly works as a laundress, all four of his grandparents are confined to a shared bed and the family subsists on cabbage.

But despite his inability to purchase thousands of chocolate bars, Charlie manages to find a golden ticket and wins a chance to visit Wonka’s factory. He rouses his Grandpa Joe — played by vaudeville actor Jack Albertson — out of bed to accompany him on the tour.

The other four ticket winners aren’t painted as sympathetically as Charlie. There’s the rude, fast-talking Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson) who, for some reason, likes to stick chewing gum behind her ear. Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) is equally obsessed with both television and cowboys. Gluttonous Genman Agustos Gloop (Michael Bollner) gets the least amount of screen time.

And then there’s Veruca Salt (Julie Cole) who steals the show with her prissy outfits and bratty demands — “I want an Oompah Loompah now!” She’s the only one of the children who is given a solo musical number, shown in the second half of the movie. And unlike the other child actors, she still works in show business.

There’s no happy ending for the less-deserving children. They’re picked off one-by-one because of their own greed. And each child’s demise is followed by a catty public service announcement from Wonka’s factory workers: the short, wide-hipped, orange-hued, green-haired Oompah Loompahs.

Even compared with today’s computer-generated animation, the scenery inside the chocolate factory is breathtaking. Candy grows on trees, the river is made of chocolate, the spots on the toadstools are made of whipped cream — and you can even eat the dishes.

But this fantastic room is followed by the most terrifying scene in the movie — a scene young children have been fast-forwarding through since the VCR was invented.

Wonka and his guests board a boat and float down the chocolate river into the most nightmarish tunnel ever built.

Wilder’s character adopts an eerie, high-pitched voice and starts singing nonsense. For some reason, his song is played over footage of centipedes crawling on a face and a chicken being decapitated.

Many of the movie’s strange details lead to unanswerable questions: Why is Grandpa Joe so spry when he gets out of bed for the first time in 20 years? Why is the furniture in Wonka’s office sawed in half? And what in the world is an Oompah Loompah?

But that’s what makes this movie so magical — it’s just weird.

 

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