Whether it invokes squeals of delight or shudders of unease, there's something about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that sticks with you as a child. On the one hand, you have a society where nearly everyone seems to worship candy — and what little kid wouldn't be interested in visiting that place? — but inside the chocolate factory resides an undeniably creepy troop of Oompa Loompas. Oh, and nearly every kid who visits there mysteriously disappears — Wonka's reassurance at the end of the film that all of them will be just fine never seems that convincing.
Whatever the case, the film, which is based on the book by Roald Dahl, definitely has endured at least in part because of its singular oddness. The film certainly is structured like a happily-ever-after fairy tale, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it's far more sinister than it appears on its face.
Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) is just a poor kid who loves chocolate, so he's overjoyed by the possibility of indulgence when the mysterious Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) announces a contest that will place five golden tickets in Wonka bars across the world, with the winners getting a lifetime supply of chocolate and a day-long visit to the factory.
The film takes its sweet time (pun ... not really intended) to actually get to the chocolate factory, and it's a bit of a shame because Wilder, the film's saving grace, doesn't even appear until about halfway through the film. Once we encounter his mystical character and the children enter the truly spectacular chocolate factory, the film hits its stride.
Wilder is a joy to watch as the fun-loving, but occasionally mean-spirited Wonka — the film tries to give off the impression he's only being cruel to serve a greater purpose, but in those moments, he does seem to truly enjoy it. Charlie's Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) provides somewhat of a contrast, as he is unquestionably kind-hearted.
The film has something to say about kids overindulging and becoming spoiled when they get whatever they want, making it seem like a moralistic lesson until the very end, when Wonka himself totally undercuts it all ("But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted. He lived happily ever after."). Talk about conflicting ideals.