Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Not since I had to sit down and review The Wizard of Oz – 70th Anniversary Edition a couple years ago have I been at such a loss for how to frame a review for a film. The recent release of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory on Blu-ray from Warner Bros, not only celebrates the 40th Anniversary of this classic film but I’m tasked with reviewing the Ultimate Collector’s Edition. Let me start by saying this isn’t some little two-disc set to commemorate the film. This is a suitcase full of extras galore – which I attacked like a kid in a candy. . . well, let’s just say the only thing missing is your own Oompa-Loompa. Like any good candy bar, it’s easier if you break it down into smaller bite-size pieces.
THE FILM: If you don’t know about the film after 40 years, then I’d be surprised if you wanted to jump into something as daunting as an Ultimate Collector’s Edition. The most obvious question to ask when older films are released on their anniversaries is if they still hold the same appeal that they did when originally released. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a film that has never really left my life. I watched it when I could through my childhood and even more once it hit VHS. I had children and made sure that they were familiar with it. The Tim Burton remake, while servicable, did little more than highlight the magic of the 1971 original. Some films just capture magic in a bottle (a bottle of Fizzy Lifiting Drinks, if you will). This film lives in a timeless world that films can’t make happen; the have to be happy accidents. The script by author Roald Dahl, directed by Mel Stuart, and starring Gene Wilder as Wonka and Peter Ostrum as our hero, Charlie.
I don’t think my comparison to The Wizard of Oz is without merit. The adventure of a poor young boy who is transported to a magical world filled with little people and a wizard that seems to make magic happen. Instead of a dreary, B&W Kansas, Charlie is escaping a Dickensian English town. Each character that Charlie gets to know along the way teach him a lesson about greed (“I want it now”) and gluttony (Augustus Gloop) and even sloth (Mike Teevee). There are important points in the movie told with music. It isn’t a musical; I never considered it such, but I treasure the soundtrack. The score composed by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley captures so many moments perfectly. People recall Gene Wilder’s “Pure Imagination” for good reason – it sums up the world of the chocolate factory, but it speaks to those feelings of childhood in general “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”
The other songs are comforting as the film runs its course like a chocolate river. The song’s from Charlie’s home capture the spirit and love of the book. I’m partial to Charlie’s mother singing him “Cheer Up, Charlie” (“Just be glad you’re you.”) and “(I’ve Got A) Golden Ticket” with Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) coming to life. The Oompa-Loompa songs are our Greek Chorus and were always my favorite as a kid. Today, it’s not that they have changed as much as I see the brilliance in the pacing of the remaining songs.
Peter Ostrum acted in one movie. He was Charlie Bucket and then he left acting. His personality is just what this film needed. Roald Dahl would disown the film because of the rewrites and not allow the sequels to be made. The biggest complaint at the time being the change in focus from Charlie in the book to Willy Wonka in the film. Charlie is still our hero. We see the movie through the wonder of his eyes (“If you want to view Paradise, simply look around and view it.”). But we are in the world of Willy Wonka. It’s Gene Wilder’s vision for the character that takes him beyond the eccentric character of the book. He’s a trickster. I still get goosebumps at the way we are introduced to him as a feeble man who never leaves the factory. And his transformation is one that only a child would envision. He is a big kid but still firmly in the world of adults. He has a kind of disdain for the misbehaving children (aimed at their parents too), there’s a crazy, almost dangerous side to him. When Mike Teevee is being transported by Wonkavision, Wonka has the sly “No. Don’t” line under his breath.
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.” That one line is the “There’s no place like home” of Willy Wonka. Charlie had just been told that he had lost, that he won nothing. In that moment of frustration, he leaves behind the Everlasting Gobstopper instead of selling it to Slugworth. The lessons have been learned. And like any great children’s fantasy, a good deed is rewarded. Not with the expected lifetime supply of chocolate but with a whole chocolate factory. Charlie’s life is changed by doing the good deed. The music swells with a reprise of “Pure Imagination” as we break through the ceiling and like the great glass Wonkavator my heart flies.
THE EXTRAS: This is the reason you invest in an Ultimate Edition. This set is loaded and it all adds to the enjoyment of the film. I was excited to skip to the extra features but they serve to keep driving you back to the film. My favorite pieces are the two printed materials. There’s a 14-piece reprint of actual Production Correspondences. It’s like peeking into a folder on someone’s desk at Warner Bros. I love the list of other actors considered for the Wonka role (especially that of Peter Sellers). There’s a substantial book entitled Pure Imagination written by Mel Stuart. With great color pictures, this read is better than a commentary because it allows the director to fully cover subjects without concern to what is happening on the screen.
Speaking of commentaries, there is one with the kids from the film. It’s interesting but probably the weakest of the extras other than an updated “where are they now?” type of curiosity. The Blu-ray contains another documentary called “Pure Imagination” that covers much of the info from the book about the making of the film. There’s a short featurette from 1971 and a trailer from the time that shows me that they didn’t know how to market this film. There’s an additional DVD in the set that includes Mel Stuart’s “Wonkavision” – an interview with the director. After the other pieces, I didn’t feel like this covered any new ground but just reiterated points from the docs. I was very intrigued by “A World Of Pure Imagination” that is an older featurette that includes a interview with Roald Dahl. His opinions of the film are interesting but ultimately irrelevant. It’s his ideas that live on in the books but the movie exists as a separate entity, quite different than the book (see Wizard of Oz for similar changes). The box also includes a fun Retro Pencil Box tin with scratch-n-sniff pencils and a scented eraser.
The 1080p HD version of the film is the best I’ve ever seen. But the film always looked great. David Wolper productions had a brilliant and bright look that has aged well. The 5.1 Dolby mix brings out sounds in the factory that I had never heard before. There’s just so much to love about this release. I would hope that the timing of it puts it on many a Christmas list.
“Tell me, where is fancy bred? In the heart or the head?” It’s been 40 years since the release. I’ve had that many years myself to let it live in my brain. To feel it in my heart. Willy Wonka is quoting Shakespeare as a toss away quote. Somewhere in these 40 years, I’ve realized it’s a film aimed at adults as much as kids. Because the kids have “pure imagination” – it’s us adults that need to “truly believe”.