Who would have guessed, in 1971, that Mel Stuart’s trippy jaunt through a dangerous candy factory would have the staying power of an everlasting gobstopper?
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which casts the wonderful Gene Wilder as a reclusive sweets genius, turned 40 on June 30. What better time for the weekly “When Can I Watch That With My Kids” column to cue up some WonkaVision and tour the milk-chocolate manufacturer’s tasty laboratory?
So let’s unwrap a factory full of Wonka Bars, take a swig of some Fizzy Lifting Drink and figure out when you can watch Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with your kids.
The Discussion: “In your wildest dreams, you could not imagine the marvelous surprises that await you!”
Let’s make the distinction up front. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Tim Burton’s 2005 remake of Roald Dahl’s seminal work. Johnny Depp is disturbingly aloof and desensitized as the eccentric candy maker. Young Freddie Highmore’s an optimistic Charlie. And the squirrel sequence imagined by screenwriter John August was an inspired method for disposing of Burton’s grotesque Veruca Salt (Julia Winter, just perfect).
But you have to start with Stuart’s exquisitely strange 1971 adaptation of Dahl’s novel when you’re first introducing your children to the story.
Released nearly 40 years ago to the day, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory attached itself to a rising star named Gene Wilder and rode his coattails to cult-film status. Wilder was coming off of Mel Brooks’ The Producers and Bud Yorkin’s mistaken-identity farce Start the Revolution Without Me. He might not have been the first name one thought of to headline a children’s adventure story … but then again, Dahl hadn’t exactly penned a traditional children’s tale.
Both of those reasons might explain why Wonka flopped at the time. Despite critical praise and an eventual Oscar nomination for Best Score, Stuart’s film earned only $4 million at the box office and was disowned by both Dahl (who hated the rewrites made to his initial script) and Paramount Pictures.
But like any good cult film, Wonka gained a devoted following over the years, one that only grew stronger with repeat television broadcasts, anniversary re-releases, DVD versions and more.
Also, it’s awesome. Bizarre, imaginative and challenging, as well, but undoubtedly awesome. There are a handful of elements to Wonka that could set your kids back a bit, particularly if you are a responsible parent and don’t let them drop tabs of acid before they watch. Let’s kick them around in the red flags section.
Red Flags: “Who do you blame when your kid is a brat?”
The Oompa Loompas gave me nightmares as a child. Some kids (the ones who watched Poltergeist) saw clowns hiding under their beds at night. I saw Oompa Loompas. Heard them singing their creepy chant, too. In hindsight, I think it was the white eyebrows. So disturbing.
I’m not alone. Brendan, our 3 years old, kept saying, “Those guys are totally weird,” while we watched Wonka as a family.
Now, viewing the film through the eyes of a parent, I’m far more disturbed by the monstrous behavior of the young “winners” selected to tour Wonka’s factory (outside of Peter Ostrum’s pious Charlie Bucket, of course).
This might be the one spot where Burton trumped the original by finding four legitimately disgusting children and pairing them with equally offensive parents. But the kids in Stuart’s musical are equally wicked, and none more so than Julie Dawn Cole’s stupendously bitchy Veruca Salt.
Your kids also might be bothered by Willy Wonka, who Wilder wisely laces with a trace of menace and indifference as cruel things (albeit self-inflicted) happen to the nasty children on Wonka’s exclusive tour. “Little surprises around every door, but nothing dangerous,” as Wonka warns. Except that trippy boat ride, with images of a chicken being beheaded and a snake crawling across a man’s face!
Prepare your kids for the fact that bad things are going to happen in this magical place, from Augustus riding the pipes out of the chocolate river to Violet blowing up like an overblown blueberry. But emphasize that each kid suffers the consequences of bad decisions. These brats deserve everything that they get. But it’s not their story, and I’ll elaborate why in the Green Lights
Green Lights: “I’ve got a golden ticket!”
Dahl’s story isn’t about Augustus, Veruca, Mike or the gum-chewing Violet. It’s the story of Charlie and his trip to the chocolate factory, and this winning character is the reason you’ll want to introduce Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to your children.
My son P.J., who is 7, told me after our screening that he wishes he could be Charlie. We talked about how fate allowed young Charlie to claim the final golden ticket because he unselfishly buys a candy bar for Grandpa Joe. We also talked about the poverty in Charlie’s family, and the generosity that flowed through his family members. Finally, we talked about how wonderful it was to see Grandpa Joe getting out of his comfort zone (and his bed) to enter Wonka’s world of pure imagination.
And oh, that world. There’s so much creativity at play in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Each new scene is delightfully fueled with whimsy and heart. And Wilder is just perfect as the tour guide with an ulterior motive … to find a successor. Lessons abound through Willy Wonka, and there’s plenty to digest with your children, even if the best messages are sung by disturbing oompa loompas. Orange faces AND green hair? C’mon now, that’s just bizarre.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a fable for all ages, but I’m going to say kids 5 and up will best appreciate the themes (both positive and negative) in Dahl’s subversive parable and David Seltzer’s witty script. Parents will get more than a few chuckles at the dry humor worked through the screenplay regarding humanity’s greed, selfishness and other cruel vices. And kids will devour the imaginative fantasy like … well, like kids in a candy factory.
Previous “When Can I Watch” Columns:
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Back to the Future
Superman: The Movie
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Indiana Jones series
The Star Wars Saga