This week, Spike Jonze's long-awaited adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are finally arrives in theaters, rewarding us for years and years of devoted attention to the production's twists and turns. But as exciting as the saga of its making has been, we've been bummed out that there are so few stopgap releases offering a similar kind of creepy, beautiful melancholy for kid audiences (and especially, audiences that are kids at heart).
Then again, looking back at the legacy of so-called family films that truly offer something transgressive, much less a little bit trippy, there aren't a whole lot of titles that come to mind as consummate entries in that rewarding, rarified canon. All of which brings us to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. No, not Tim Burton's 2005 film about a dentist's son who overcomes his obsession with Michael Jackson impersonation with the help of an adorable street urchin; the 1971 Mel Stuart film that turned the stuff of kids' dreams into a palpable reality, while offering a few future nightmares along the way.
Whether by accident or design, Warner Home Video released Willy Wonka on Blu-ray last week as a home-video supplement to Wild Things, and both because of our affection for borderline-creepy kid stories and of course our appetite for all things high definition, Stuart's film is the subject of this week's "Shelf Life."
The Facts: Directed by Mel Stuart from a script written by original author Roald Dahl, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was released in the United States on June 30, 1971, and grossed an estimated $4 million ($17.4 million or so adjusted for today's dollar) at the domestic box office, recouping its reported $3 million budget. According to various sources, the film's title was changed from its original Charlie & the Chocolate Factory because of a marketing tie-in promoting Quaker Oats' Wonka Bar, as well as an unflattering association with the United States' involvement in Vietnam, where members of the Viet Cong had been nicknamed "Charlie." The film was well-received by critics, and currently enjoys a 90 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score for Anthony Newley's efforts as the film's composer.
What Still Works: It's tempting to sing the film's praises in direct comparison to Burton's godawful remake, which got pretty much everything wrong that Stuart's film got right – starting with Wonka himself. Gene Wilder is simply brilliant as a man-child with a superior intellect and a subversive sense of humor; his eccentricities aren't affectation or just plain bizarreness, but a fortified shell of savvy awareness and deliberate idealism that protects him from the crass cynicism and prying entitlement of the outside world. In spite of the film's title, meanwhile, Stuart wisely keeps the focus on Charlie, who is not only the main character but the story's most important character; not only is Wonka's mystique a big part of his appeal (which is ruined with a terrible, cheaply psycho-analytical background story), but it's the purity of Charlie's spirit that galvanizes the story and gives it a payoff that means something – to both kids and adults.
What Doesn't Work: Not a whole lot, including its sometimes inappropriate shifts in tone, language and behavior that by today's standards seem, to say the very least, creepy. The best worst moment in the film by far is the boat ride the group takes, during which a chicken is beheaded in the rear-projection background images, but there's a number of scenes where grown-ups talk and interact with kids in ways that contemporary audiences might consider... again, inappropriate. And as awesome as it is especially in retrospect, there's a degree of ambiguity to the fates of the other children (a "they'll be fine" from Wonka isn't quite convincing) that feels outdated; but then again, the alternative in the new one was to use CGI to show what happened to them – and that certainly wasn't any better.
What's The Verdict: As a longtime fan, I'm grateful to discover that Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory continues to hold up and then some. The story, the sets, the characters, and the songs almost all feel perfectly realized, and lose little to nothing in an era where computer-generated effects have all but completely replaced practical ones. As an imaginary species, the Oompa-Loompas aren't little-people caricatures, but a fascinating novelty for these kids (and by extension, the audience), and their tunes in particular are terrific. But most of all, the story's directness and its cleanliness chronicling Charlie's wholesome and unfettered goodness creates a really powerful parable about the virtues of responsibility and integrity and sensitivity that continues to resonate today.