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. However, it 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 called the film ‘crummy’. Dahl’s dislike centred on the films director Mel Stuart and changes made to the book in production. However, Dahl also disliked the casting of Gene Wilder, stating he would have preferred Peter Sellars or Spike Milligan in the role.
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For me, as much as I value the opinions of the legendary author, on this occasion, he got it wrong. And while Mel Stuart’s film reworked elements of the story to fit the big screen, this was done out of pure necessity due to the limitations of available practical effects work. While at the same time, Gene Wilder’s casting was, in my opinion, a stroke of pure genius. The film’s lasting impact a testament to its beauty, charm, deliciously dark humour, songs, and performances. In fact, at 50, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains the benchmark for many of the Roald Dahl adaptations since. While at the same time, Wilder’s Willy Wonka remains unequalled. His screen steeling performance continuing to delight, and at times scare, new generations of kids.
By treating its young audience with intelligence and embracing the darker tones of childhood imagination. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains one of the finest kids movies and musicals ever made. Its pure wonder, energy and honesty dovetailed with colourful fantasy. Here, Wilder’s Willy Wonka is utterly charming, devilishly playful and completely unpredictable. And it is Wilder’s performance that glues together both the darkness and light of Charlie’s incredible journey. Meanwhile, the kids natural, unforced performances are led by Peter Ostrum’s superb Charlie. But, when these outstanding and delicious performances dovetail with Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s magical score, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soars. Its sheer imagination, wonder, charm and optimism enthralling and delighting audiences 50 years on.
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