Celebrating its 50th anniversary today, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not have found critical acclaim on its release, but it remains a film of pure imagination and joy. Originally financed by the Quaker Oats Company, Mel Stuart’s film exudes a love of Dahl’s source material and the eccentricities of his writing and characters. However, Stuart’s movie did not find favour with the man himself on release; in fact, in the biography written by Dahl’s long-time friend Donald Sturrock, he allegedly labelled the film as being ‘crummy’. Dahl’s dislike of the film centred on the changes Mel Stuart made to the book during production, and Dahl’s inexplicable dislike of Gene Wilder, stating he would have preferred to see Peter Sellars or Spike Milligan in the role of Wonka.
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For me, as much as I value the legendary author’s opinions, he got it wrong on this occasion. Mel Stuart’s film may have reworked elements of the story to fit the big screen, but this was done out of necessity due to the limitations of practical effects work at the time. But where Dahl really got it wrong was in the casting of Gene Wilder. In my opinion, Wilder makes the movie, and as a result, his interpretation of Wonka has become the performance others can only aspire to reach. It’s fair to say, that the film’s lasting impact is a testament to the beauty, charm, deliciously dark humour, and otherworldliness Wilder brings.
At 50, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains the benchmark for Roald Dahl on screen. Stuart’s film treats its young audience with intelligence while embracing the darker corners of childhood imagination. It then mixes these two defining traits with a musical score that is as memorable as the performances at its core. The result is an artistic template that would inspire Matilda the Musical and the delightful Fantastic Mr Fox.
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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains one of the best kid’s movies and musicals ever committed to celluloid, its wonder, energy and magic dovetailed with a colourful and sweet fantasy. Wilder’s Willy Wonka is charming, devilishly playful and completely unpredictable while the kids are believable, natural and always engaging. But, when these outstanding and delicious performances dovetail with Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s magical score, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soars, enthralling and delighting audiences 50 years on from its release.
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