Film review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

25-year-old Roald Dahl story has been preserved to its original 1971 splendor.

Published: Monday, March 1 2004 11:58 a.m. MST

Movie buffs like me love to see all the attention lavished on older pictures — especially when a major studio kicks in the money to go through the painstaking process of restoring a film to its original splendor.

But sometimes the choices seem a bit odd.

Not that I have anything against "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," mind you — but there are probably other, more important films that deserve this treatment. This isn't "The Wizard of Oz," after all. Well, most of the way.

On the other hand, it's nice to see a children's film that relies so heavily on the vibrant colors of its lavish set design go through the preservation process. And with two other Roald Dahl adaptations in theaters right now — "Matilda" and "James and the Giant Peach" — perhaps the time is right, at least in a commercial sense. (And it probably helps that this is the 25th anniversary of "Willy Wonka," which first hit theaters in 1971.)

Adapted by Dahl himself (from his book, titled "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), the first 45 minutes of this musical fantasy sets up the main characters, young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum — whatever happened to him?) and his loving, optimistic Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson).

They live in a shack on the poor side of town, where Charlie's mother takes in laundry to support him and his four grandparents, who have been bedridden for 20 years. Charlie also helps out with earnings from his paper route.

The plot kicks in when the mysterious Wonka chocolate factory announces a contest. Hidden in five of the thousands of Wonka bars distributed around the world are gold tickets for a tour of the Wonka factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate.

Charlie wants to win very badly, but he's too poor to buy even one bar, while rich kids around the globe are purchasing hundreds. He does eventually get a ticket, of course, and Grandpa Joe manages to rise from his sickbed to go with him.

Though the Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley songs are hit and miss ("Candy Man" is the most famous), this first half holds up quite well, with some genuinely hilarious bits of business as Dahl and director Mel Stuart ("If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," "Sophia Loren: Her Own Story") show a deft hand for dark comedy.

But it really gets going in the second half, as we meet the enigmatic Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), who guides Charlie and Grandpa Joe, along with four spoiled-brat kids and their weak-kneed parents, on a tour of his magical factory.

This section takes on a "Wizard of Oz" tone, especially with its own version of the Munchkins — the green-haired, orange-faced Oompa-Loompas. And the zany factory's imaginative gimmicks, and that vivid color scheme, will keep even the youngest kids alert.

The main complaint about this film has always been that it may be too dark in places for young children — but that's a 25-year-old complaint. True, there is an edgy tone. And until the final scenes, it's a bit hard to figure out why Wonka is such an unfeeling character (although Wilder plays it quite humorously). But this isn't nearly as dark as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" or "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" or the average video game.

By the way, to answer the question about Peter Ostrum — this was his first movie, at age 13. Today he is a veterinarian in upstate New York.

"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" is rated G.

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