Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 4k restoration, is available now.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not have found critical acclaim upon its release, but it remains a film of pure imagination and sweet, sugar-coated joy. Initially financed by the Quaker Oats Company, Mel Stuart’s film exudes a deep love of Dahl’s source material and the eccentricity 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, Roald Dahl allegedly said the film was ‘crummy’. His dislike of the movie centred on Mel Stuart’s changes to the book during production and an inexplicable dislike of Gene Wilder. Dahl stated he would have preferred to see Peter Sellars or Spike Milligan as Wonka, someone older with a far more eccentric British vibe. For Dahl, Wilder was young, foolish, soft and sentimental.
As much as I value the legendary author’s opinions, he was wrong. 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 the practical effects and the associated budget. But where Dahl really got it wrong, in my opinion, was his view of Gene Wilder as Wonka. Wilder makes the movie tick, and as a result, his interpretation of Willy Wonka has become a benchmark that many others have failed to match (let’s not even bother discussing Tim Burton’s adaptation). It is a testament to Wilder’s characterisation that fifty years later, even Timothée Chalamet’s new Willy Wonka appears to be channelling Wilder’s character with a decidedly Victorian twist. Wilder brought beauty, charm, deliciously dark humour, and an unmistakable otherworldliness to Dahl’s literary figure.
FILMING ‘WONKA’ STARRING TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET ©WARNER BROS
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains a benchmark in Dahl adaptations. Stuart’s film treats its young audience to a bright musical that isn’t afraid to uncover the darkest corners of childhood imagination. It then mixes this with a musical score as memorable as the performances to create a unique, exhilarating, fabulous and divine cinematic potion. The result would create the template for oh-so-many Dahl movies since, including Matilda the Musical and the delightful Fantastic Mr Fox.
As a result, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains one of the best kid’s movie musicals ever made; its wonder, energy and magic dovetailed with a colourful and sweet fantasy. Wilder’s Willy Wonka is charming, devilishly playful and wondrously unpredictable, while the kids are believable, natural and utterly 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 as high as a fizzy lifting drink designed to take you on a sugar-coated trip to heaven.