If there is a better example of a movie you see one way as a kid, and another as an adult, than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), I am unaware of it. It is weird to think about now, but it was only nine years old when I was born. Think back to some of the movies that came out nine years go and ask yourself if you feel like they are from another era. Growing up, we watched the 1971 classic because it was about candy. The oompaloompas were funny, the title business looked cool, and what child would not want to have a lifetime supply of chocolate? What I completely ignored (other than the music, which sticks in my brain despite my distaste for musicals) were the several witticisms. Actually, “witticisms” might be the wrong word. The title sweet purveyor, Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), has a sardonic sense of humor chock full of one-liners that he delivers throughout. They whooshed by over my head somewhere in the stratosphere as an eight-year-old. As an adult, it makes the film a rich viewing experience.
One of the things that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory does well early on is establish the sort of cult of personality surrounding the chocolate maker. Everyone loves Willy Wonka, and it is a reputation established by his remarkable line of sweets that kids all over the world greedily gobble. One kid who is literally on the outside looking in of the fun being had with Wonka’s treats is Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum). He cannot take part in the frivolity because he is poor. Instead, he must go about his job of delivering newspapers. His route takes him past the gates of the factory, where he learns a dark secret about Wonka: the owner shut the compound down to outsiders, with no one coming in, and no one leaving. Charlie’s beloved, bedridden grandfather Joe (Jack Albertson), fills in the story about how this had been triggered by Wonka being betrayed by his competitors, mainly Mr. Slugworth (Günter Meisner). With this in mind, an incredible announcement reaches Charlie while he is in school: Willy Wonka is going to open his factory to five visitors. To earn the right to be one of the lucky few, you have to find a golden ticket inside the wrapping of one of his candy bars. Finding one also comes with a lifetime supply of chocolate. Like anyone else, Charlie would love to be one of the winners. His finances, though, means he will have precious few opportunities to obtain one of the tickets. He keeps his hopes alive throughout by saying that he wants it more than others. Meanwhile, we are introduced to the other four winners, which come from a variety of parts of the world. There is the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Michael Böllner) from Germany; the spoiled brat Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) from England; the gum-chewing chatterbox Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson); and Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), whose name suggests all you need to know about him. The last two are from the United States. When the fifth ticket is apparently won by a mysterious Paraguayan millionaire, Charlie is devastated. However, it soon comes out that this last ticket is a forgery, meaning there is one more to be found. Serendipitously, Charlie finds money in a gutter just on the eve of this latest revelation. He immediately goes into the candy shop, scarfs down one chocolate, and takes one with him. When he learns about the remaining ticket, he looks down at the chocolate bar he has with him. Of course, it has the last ticket. Because each of the winners are children, they each have their chaperones they bring with them, most of whom are just as terrible as their young counterparts. Charlie chooses Grandpa Joe. What proceeds is a tour of the nuthouse that is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Along the way, each of the winners faces a temptation appropriate to their character traits, and it ends with them having to drop out of the tour. There is even an incident with Charlie and Grandpa Joe when they ingest fizzy lifting drinks, and their float to the top of the factory nearly results in their gruesome deaths. Another allurement for all the winners is Mr. Slugworth’s proposed deal that they bring him one of Wonka’s top-secret everlasting gobstoppers in exchange for a large sum of cash. When they get to the end, with Charlie being the only child left, Wonka is about to dismiss the Buckets without giving any of the promised prizes. When Grandpa Joe protests, Wonka angrily reminds them that they were in breach of contract, particularly for “stealing” fizzy lifting drinks and smearing the ceiling. Sorrowfully, Charlie returns the everlasting gobstoppers and turns to leave. Wonka stops the boy. This is the selfless act that the chocolate maker had been looking for from the winners, and the tour had been a test. The result is Wonka giving the factory to Charlie and his family.
In my introduction to this review of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I focused on the barbs that I missed as a child. Another thing that I did not think much about as an adolescent are the incredible lessons in the film. The four kids that fail to make it to the end each embody what this Catholic reviewer will refer to as a sin. There is gluttony, vanity, greed, and envy. You can choose for yourself which character fits bets with which sin. The only ones missing from the so-called Seven Deadly Sins are lust, wrath, and sloth, although you can understand why these would not be seen in a musical aimed at children, especially lust. There are a lot of great lines in the film, and a non-Catholic can get lost in them. I enjoy them as well. What makes this movie more than just a fun story about a kid’s dream of getting to run around a candy factory are the lessons. I do not know if I can credit the film with helping me develop into the man I am today. Yet, seeing what happens to people like Veruca Salt, particularly, cannot hurt to show young, impressionable eyes. Either way, the best moment comes when you see Charlie return the everlasting gobstopper. Earlier, he is set up as a sympathetic character. It is this last act that makes him selfless. The rewards of selflessness are laid down by Faith as well. In the film, the heaven is the chocolate factory. In reality, it is Heaven above.
I do not necessarily wish to over theologize Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Yet, it is a film that naturally lends itself to doing so. My only criticism of it is that it is a musical, which has been established as not being my favorite genre. Otherwise, it combines witty sayings and great lessons. This is a wonderful combination for me personally, and I hope for everyone else. It gets my full recommendation.