Fifty years this ago this week, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory opened at movie theaters all across America. It’s since become one of the most beloved children’s movies of all time, but it was a big commercial disappointment at the time, and many of the reviews were quite negative.
“It’s tedious and stagy with little sparkle and precious little humor,” read a typical review in The New York Times. “Take the youngsters only if they’re tired of Sesame Street, and why should they be?”
Unsurprisingly, Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who truly got it. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz,” he wrote in a four-star review. “It is everything that family movies usually claim to be, but aren’t: Delightful, funny, scary, exciting, and, most of all, a genuine work of imagination. Willy Wonka is such a surely and wonderfully spun fantasy that it works on all kinds of minds, and it is fascinating because, like all classic fantasy, it is fascinated with itself.”
Much like The Wizard of Oz, repeat showings on television introduced the movie to generation after generation of little kids. There’s something just irresistible about the idea of finding a Golden Ticket, entering a magical chocolate factory, and ultimately winning the right to take the whole place over. But underneath the Fizzy Lifting Drinks, Snozzberries, and Everlasting Gobstoppers, there were some very disturbing questions.
Are the Oompa-Loompas paid for their toil? Do they have the right to leave the factory? Did Violet Beauregarde deserve to be turned into a giant blueberry merely for enjoying bubblegum? Veruca Salt was an insufferable brat, but wasn’t dropping her into a furnace a bit much? Did she live? Did Augustus Gloop and Mike Teavee survive as well? Wonka says they’re all OK at the end, but they sure didn’t look OK the last time we saw them. He’s also not exactly a reliable source of information.
He’s also more than a little insane. Take the infamous boat scene that takes place moments after Augustus Gloop gets shot out of a chocolate pipe, quite possibly to his death. Wonka then takes the living children and their guardians into a freakish, pitch-black tunnel where he ignores their cries of terror and sings one of the spookiest little songs ever caught on film. Check it out right here.
“Not a speck of light is showing,” Wonka deadpans as the Oompa-Loompas propel the boat at a psychotic pace. “So the danger must be growing/Are the fires of hell a-glowing?/Is the grisly reaper mowing?/Yes, the danger must be growing/For the rowers keep on rowing/And they’re certainly not showing/Any signs that they are slowing.”
If that’s not enough, he projects a series of rapid-fire psychedelic images on the walls, including a chicken getting its head chopped off and a worm crawling on the head of what appears to be a corpse. It’s nearly enough to make Mike Teavee’s mother puke.
Gene Wilder’s performance here is fantastically unsettling. It’s hard to imagine any other actor pulling it off. Johnny Depp attempted to reimagine Wonka as a Michael Jackson–eque man child in Tim Burton’s 2005 remake, but it simply didn’t work. The original movie cannot be replicated and Burton and Co. should have never even bothered to try.
Word came out a few weeks back that Timothée Chalamet is going to play Willy Wonka in a prequel movie due out in 2023. But it’s not based on anything that Roald Dahl wrote, and will almost certainly be a huge disappointment. The original Dahl book is a masterpiece, and the 1971 film is nearly flawless. Hollywood should just leave it at that.