Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Looking back as an adult at this movie, the special effects seem awfully dated, but then they seemed dated in the eighties, when it was available on video, and my sister and I rented and watched it probably a total of one million times. However, the opening credit sequence – of candy being made – is still impossible to view without my mouth watering and wanting to grab a snack, if I haven’t already.

And boy, does this movie make you want to snack. Even though it’s over an hour before anyone actually enters the fabled chocolate factory itself.

The movie itself opens with a shot of kids streaming out of the school gates. Most head directly for Mr. Candyman’s candy emporium. “Whatcha got for us today?” a cherubic cheeked youngster asks, and the owner obligingly starts tossing them candy like fish to seals. Pan to our hero, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) with his nose literally pressed against the window glass. Now (digression) even as a kid, this bugged me. As far as I could tell, Mr. Candyman appeared to be giving out the candy for free, but was he secretly keeping tabs on who snatched what? Did Mr. Candyman have a restraining order against Charlie? This seemed a little sinister for a kids’ movie.

It turns out that Charlie is actually fond of chocolate, but he’s very poor and lives with his single mom and four grandparents, who are bedridden. As in, they share the same bed. Because of his poverty, his mom has to take in washing and serve her family cabbage soup (Dickens would have leapt to immortalize them in his work), while Charlie has an after-school paper route which allows him to bring the luxury of bread home. Charlie is also intrigued by Willy Wonka’s once fabled nearby chocolate factory, which still produces candy, but “no one ever goes in, and no one ever goes out.” However, that’s about to change.

Wonka announces a contest in which he has placed five “Golden Tickets” in chocolate bars, and the winners will all receive a tour of the factory, plus a lifetime supply of candy. Charlie doesn’t think he has a chance, but since he gets a bar of chocolate yearly for his birthday, hey, why not hope a little? The movie has fun with the possibility that even sane adults might lose their heads over the prospect of finding a ticket, while we wait to see who the lucky winners are.

The four kids picked before Charlie are, well, brats. They include:

Augustus Gloop: A rotund German lad with a robust appetite.

Veruca Salt: A spoiled brat whose parents give her everything she wants.

Violet Beauregarde: A perpetually gum-chewing snot.

Mike Teevee: A – wait for it – television addict.  Also likes guns although Dad won’t get him a “real one” quite yet.

And they will all meet grisly fates, once they actually enter the factory and start misbehaving. In brief:

Augustus: Falls into indoor chocolate river, while he’s sampling the goods, and gets sucked up a pipe which leads to the “fudge room.”

Veruca: Falls down a chute meant for “bad (candy) eggs,” after having a tantrum to get her father to buy her a golden goose.

Violet: Samples a new chewing gum, which causes her to swell up and turn bright blue.

Mike: Insists on trying out a new invention: a television that reduces him to the size of a little person (it’s meant to shrink chocolate to the size a viewer at home can sample).

Charlie also misbehaves (at least in the movie), when he and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) sneak away to sample some “fizzy lifting drink,” and find themselves soaring heavenward, closer and closer – to the dangerous whirling fans – until they inadvertently realize they can come back down by burping. (In a parody episode of “Family Guy,” Peter and Brian get a chance to tour the “Pawtucket Pat’s'” beer factory and find they can return to their feet by farting, but unlike Charlie in the movie they are promptly thrown out as a result.)

Prior to arriving at the factory, the five kids are also approached by a sinister looking man, claiming to be “Slugworth” a rival candy maker who wants nothing but a sample of Wonka’s new “Everlasting Gobstopper,” which is ideal for kids with little pocket money. Will any of them actually do this? Wait and see!

When Charlie finds money on the street, he winds up getting a Golden Ticket after all, and his Grandpa Joe decides out of the blue that he might as well get out of bed and accompany Charlie there, since each child is allowed to bring a parent or guardian on the tour. Which prompts Charlie’s mother to whack him with a bedpan and say, “Really? That’s all it took to get you out of bed? And I’ve been working my fingers to the bone for years, while you just laze around all day?” No, just kidding. Because she is a saint, she’s very pleased and lets the two of them go with her blessing.

Wonka himself is a very odd duck. He makes the kids sign some kind of legal agreement before they’re allowed to start the tour. When they do, and kids start self-destructing, and the parents beg Wonka to intervene, he makes only the briefest attempts. Indeed, he almost seems to be enjoying the whole thing. After the damage is done, his response is to summon the Oompa Loompas (green haired, orange complexioned little people who apparently love to dance and sing) to escort the tearful parent away. So Wonka is not only a quasi-murderer, he’s running a sweatshop, as well. But no one tries to leave early of their own volition, at least not very hard. They must really want that lifetime supply of chocolate.

The most eerie aspect for me, as a kid, was not the Oompa Loompas and their penchant for singing instructional ditties, but the fact that it becomes increasingly clear that the whole Golden Ticket set-up has been pre-arranged.  The Tim Burton remake alludes to this when it has Charlie ask Mr. Wonka politely why “Augustus’ name is already in the song,” and Wonka gives him an unconvincing reply.

In the end, Charlie, of course, passes the tests and wins the contest and even gets to bring his entire family to live in the factory. (See the Tim Burton updated version for a Wonka with serious daddy issues, who isn’t too pleased at the prospect of meeting “old people.”) But this movie’s version is more upbeat, ending with Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Wonka soaring in a glass elevator over the town. (There is a book sequel titled: “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.”)

Roald Dahl, who is the author of both, came up with the chocolate factory plot when he was remembering how Cadbury had the brilliant idea of sending its samples to his private all-boys’ school and requesting that they give each candy bar a brief description and rating in exchange.  Also there was a lot of spying apparently going on with real candymakers, too.

At the end as well, the four brats are mostly restored to their old and awful selves, but it always struck me as a little extreme because I doubted Wonka was also going to throw in a lifetime supply of therapy with the free chocolates.  But the “world of pure imagination” does have its sinister side, I guess.  At least Charllie’s mom will no longer have do any washing, and the grandparents can lounge around in the bed to their heart’s content.  (Although in the book sequel, they don’t.)