By John Hanlon
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory faltered at the box office when it originally arrived in theaters. The candy-colored musical just didn’t catch on with viewers. In the half century since the film’s release, it’s become a phenomenon with viewers embracing the wit, wisdom and wonder of the classic movie. The 1971 film celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year, meaning it’s the perfect time to revisit the iconic story.
Adapted from the Roald Dahl novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 film tells the story of a poor boy named Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and his adventures visiting an iconic factory. When the story begins, Charlie lives with his mother and his four bed-ridden grandparents. The family struggles to get by and Charlie dreams of better days. When the mysterious Willy Wonka — a reclusive candy-maker who hasn’t been seen for years — announces a contest with the prize being a lifetime supply of chocolate, Charlie hopes that he’ll be lucky enough to find a golden ticket and a chance to win.
In the first half of the film, director Mel Stuart artfully sets the stage and shows all of the different elements at play. From focusing on Charlie’s plight to showing the extremes people go to just to get a ticket to introducing the children who find the first four golden tickets, Stuart masterfully reveals the world that these characters live in (a world in which a newscaster finds nothing of value to talk about, save for the contest).
The second half of the feature takes place mostly in the candy factory where the eccentric Wonka (played by the phenomenal Gene Wilder) escorts the five winners around the factory. As they make their way from room to room, some of their children’s flaws lead them to make destructive decisions and face the dire consequences.
Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory rose from being a box office disappointment to a classic film because of all its splendid ingredients and it's undeniable that the feature has grown in stature over the years. There are simply a number of dazzling elements on display here that come together beautifully in this story.
For instance, the perfectly-chosen music captures the key elements of the story. From Cheer Up, Charlie (one of the film's most underappreciated songs) to the classic Pure Imagination to the show-stopping number I Want it Now, the music provides a deeper look into the characters who sing these unforgettable tunes.
The cast itself is also a remarkable one with youngster Petr Ostrum capturing the idealism and the heartbreak of Charlie and Gene Wilder wonderfully bringing the candy man to life. Playing Grandpa Joe, Oscar winner Jack Albertson also stars as an unforgettable figure who gets "a chance to shine" in one of the film's early numbers. The supporting cast also includes unforgettable figures like the insufferable Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), the obnoxious gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson) and the television-obsessed Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen).
In addition to the wonderful music and the unforgettable characters, there's also the incredible production design that brought Wonka's chocolate factory to life. The film has thrived over the years because as more and more viewers see it, the more they appreciate how rich, inspiring and wondrous this film is.
Undeniably, there are some darker elements on display here so the feature isn't for everyone but for those willing to take a ride through a magical and majestic fantasy film, Willy Wonka offers an unforgettable story that holds up majestically 50 years after it arrived in theaters.
Blu-Ray Special Features: The Blu-Ray includes commentary from the actors who played the golden ticket winners in the film and a special featurette about the making of the film.