Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and a small bit of world building

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Fifty years on from its release, Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is still crammed with darkly funny moments that capture the book’s mix of wonderment and mean-spiritedness.

It’d be easy to use a piece like this to punch down on Tim Burton’s 2005 adaption of Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. Comparing and contrasting what it does next to 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, then bringing it together with some arbitrary score. I think I’m around 16 years too late to write that article.

Instead on the 50th anniversary of Willy Wonka, I wanted to highlight what I think is an under-discussed aspect of director Mel Stuart’s film. It’s not Gene Wilder’s wonderful performance as the whimsical child killer. Nor Jack Albertson’s tap-dancing, benefit cheating Grandpa Joe. It certainly isn’t ‘Cheer Up Charlie’, a moment I’d argue is a rare low point in this childhood classic.


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No, what for me makes Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory a near perfect adaption of Roald Dahl’s book (even if Roald Dahl didn’t think so himself!) is a series of vignettes in the opening part of the film that makes the audience fully invest in Wonkamania. It’s easy to believe that children would go wild for a chance to win a tour of a chocolate factory, but with a few clever scenes the 1971 adaption makes you believe that the adult population is obsessed. Not just through a sense of nostalgia, but due to genuine, unabashed excitement and curiosity.

Rather than simply showing confectionary stores overrun like a branch of Currys on Black Friday, Mel Stuart, working with Dahl and screenwriter David Seltzer, offer up high concept skits. There’s the programmer giving an awkward presentation to investors, while his machine (both for moral and practical reasons) refuses to give up the whereabouts of the remaining golden tickets.
An auction scene sees the last case of Wonka Bars in the UK increase in price until the Queen herself jumps in on the action. Even Charlie’s teacher dedicates an entire maths lesson to the probability of finding one of these tickets – although Charlie’s consumption of Wonka Bars makes the percentages a little too difficult to figure out.

It might not be world building on a grand scale, nor is it the most subtle, but it absolutely helps you buy into the larger conceit.

My favourite of these scenes is also the most jarring. I remember watching a VHS of the film and genuinely wondering if something had gone wrong, if the final part of Willy Wonka had been recorded over.

We open on Ed Peck’s hands rifling through paperwork. Instantly the mise-en-scène has clearly changed. This is more like a 1970’s procedural. The drab sitting room that the scene takes place in is matched by the serious performances from both Peck (who plays an FBI agent) and Gloria Manon (Mrs Curtis).

Curtis’ husband has been kidnapped. She’s frantic. The FBI are there waiting for the kidnappers to call with their demands. Unlike the other vignettes, there is no mention of Wonka Bars, or the factory. The muted performances clash wildly with the more heightened, comedic styles elsewhere.

The phone rings and the agent checks that his colleagues are ready to trace to the call. Curtis stands by, gnawing her nails, sick with worry. We cannot hear what the kidnappers are saying but we know it’s serious. The agent stands up, tells Mrs Curtis that they want her last case of Wonka Bars. She doesn’t respond, the panic in her eyes is more intense now. The agent, apparently the only person in the world not clambering to get his hands on a golden ticket (Hoover trained them well it would seem), does not see a problem. “Mrs Curtis. It’s your husband’s life or your last case of Wonka Bars!”

Then we get to the punchline. A perfectly timed statement delivered completely straight. “How long will they give me to think it over?”

The whole scene takes less than a minute, but it completely transports you out of the world for that time. Peck and Manon might as well have been filming something else entirely. There are no winks to the camera, no gurning and yet it builds to the best punchline in the opening part of the film.

Here’s the scene itself…

In such a fantastical picture, it grounds you for a moment but retains that dark wit that Dahl loved. It incorporates the greed and the childishness that he railed against in his original book. There’s a podcast here where we go into just how Dahl would be dissatisfied with the film, but it’s hard to argue too much the much-loved movie captured the themes of his work.

Even twenty years after I first saw Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, that aforementioned scene though still makes me laugh. It’s arguably the first crack in the candy façade, revealing just a hint of the dark heart underneath…

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