Spielberg and Dahl sounds like the right cocktail, but Dahl has been manhandled at the cinema before to differing results. Let’s take a look at the original, and by a wide margin still the most famous.
Avoiding equivocation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the child of a world that had not yet discovered how to adapt Roald Dahl to a visual medium. At minimum, the negligently forgotten The Witches by Nicolas Roeg (I mean, he’s only the finest British visualist of the last fifty years, so a natural fit for Dahl’s quintessentially British stories) and a cavalcade of other ‘90s films both understand Dahl and, more importantly, understand cinema, more naturally and with more charisma. In comparison, Mel Stuart’s deeply mitigated and mollified film is not ineffective, but Willy Wonka is about as cut-and-dry a case-study in mistaking a wonderful performance for a wonderful film as you’ll find in the annals of Western cinema. But more on that performance later. Unlike many of the film’s trumpeters, we have an actual movie to consider first.
The film is the story of an impoverished British boy Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and his life-beacon grandfather Jack Albertson (Grandpa Charlie) winning a trip to the fabled, clandestine candy production factory/wonderland of one Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) when Wonka ceremoniously announces that five golden tickets are hidden within five of his candy bars. Eventually, Charlie and four other sniveling little demon babies win the prizes and are ushered into Wonka’s candy-coated heaven-hell concoction in a fiercely ambivalent morality play about release, escape, and, believe it or not, existential terror.
All themes ripped from the carcass of the screenplay Dahl wrote and then disowned. Bluntly, Wonka is a severely flawed motion picture, even an out-and-out broken one in moments. The unflagging depressing anonymity of the early sections (this is a desperately and even cloyingly bifurcated motion picture split into two sections) are a necessary obelisk to counter the high-flying fever-dream world of the second half, an obvious but effective visualization of the contrast between Charlie’s hum-drum British life and the candy-coated daydreams that inhabit his mind. But, even on these terms, Mel Stuart’s direction is too timid to accentuate the physicality or wandering ennui of the hopelessness; there’s poetic emptiness and there’s laziness, and one would drive a hard bargain to sell this film as possessing the former. There’s a Pythonesque absurdity to the image of all four grandparents nestled into a bed in Charlie’s already destitute, falling-down house that has the moxie of one of the dryer Flying Circus skits on impoverished Britain, but that claim is only ever a distant rumor in a film that is mostly content to shuttle between moments rather anonymously without any comment on them. Dahl’s stories thrive on a prickly sweetness, a devilish sense of contrast between cotton candy and venom, yet the film’s visual sensibility isn’t so much sharded resplendence and ghoulish grimaces fighting one another but one monotone morass of drabness, with a deluge of plastered-on colors stuck in between without any idea which direction to go.
The platonic ideal is that the second-half when Charlie arrives at Wonka’s palace will autocorrect the earlier portions by retroactively painting them over with an air of contrast, fulfilling the idea that the early moments were indeed an intentionally staid poker-face for the shuck-and-jive move when the film finally imbibes in the wonderment and bedeviled curiosity of its eventual escape from reality. Unfortunately, the film is too equivocal for its own good. There’s a wellspring of potential for a film that both accentuates and corrodes the beauty of Wonka’s self-imposed, morbid isolation. But the filmmaking needs to be polyvalent enough to sell the multi-ringed false escapism, to function both as wonderment and horror, and the film isn’t exactly hemorrhaging originality or visual iridescence in either direction. Harper Goff’s sets within Wonka-whatever are evocatively imaginative, but they never sell either the another-plane-of-existence fantasia or the well-isn’t-this-distressing dourness the film needs to either enjoin Charlie to dream or to slather him in the monstrosities of his unearned desire for escape.
The ending of the film with Charlie saved obviously forecloses the second possibility as the film’s center, especially with the screenplay’s questionable moral relativism wherein Charlie is heroic only as a factor of circumstance, recreating exactly the rule-breaking lawlessness the other four children do and winning out only because Wonka gives him a second chance. The moral fiber of the film is shattered into tatters, which rather obviously tramples all over the folk-loric moral parable that most of the second half simmers down into. Criticizing a film for its morality is, more often than not, a way to avoid actually discussing the film in the first place, but Willy Wonka expends an awful amount of energy convincing us that it is a moral parable first and foremost, so the narrative switch-up is disingenuous at best, and destructive at worst.
Anyway, the tenuous vision of life the film desires – id-driven obliteration of the status quo mixed with Germanic folklore do-as-you’re-told conservatism – is a befuddled mess anyway, ratified by a screenplay (initially by Dahl, then rewritten by David Seltzer much to Dahl’s dismay) that has not one clue what to do with all these tangled moral and visual fibers knotting the film together with itself. The ideal for the film would be a volcano and an ice-storm, a birthday party and a funeral, and too often the film is wallowing around in a tone of nothing or vacillating between the two extremes with little nuance. Rather than a tightly coiled battle between the two emotions, the fire of desire and the ice of terror thaw each other out. Dahl’s writing suggested both an acceptance of the sweetness of dreaming as a way to break the rules and a vicious skewering of unearned rule-breaking (emphasizing moral ambivalence, not moral confusion). That could be described as going to war with oneself intentionally, a sign of maturity, but this film is too diffident to even consider lobbing a rock in its general direction.
At least there’s a spunk to the film’s jerky motions. Neither the script nor the direction are able to ride the contours of Dahls’ devious prose that – pointedly – sells terror and whimsy as two-sides of the same coin, but the encroachments of outright horror – a free-associative tunnel of nightmare logic – are effective while they last, even if their charisma outstrips their purpose and they accidentally reveal how antiquated the rest of the film is. Still, the sense of self-release and rebellion against milquetoast society that ought to enliven the back-half of the production is not exactly absent, but it is always flattened by Stuart’s largely drowsy approach to visualizing the wonders of the story. And it is undoubtedly a question of imagination; any cop-out that insufficient “technology” is the primary limitation on the film is mitigated immediately upon viewing the vastly more phantasmagorical exercises of fantastique dating back decades to the German Expressionists that this film would have done well to study before its release.
The counterbalance to the film’s frailty, however, is a most vociferous one though, beginning and ending with Wilder in his signature role, the only figure in the film capable of intermingling Dahl’s serrated tonal contrasts in a toxic brew of vaguely malevolent disinterest, alien charisma, and melancholic wonder. The nearly soundless introduction to the character, a Chaplinesque feat of characterization through sheer physicality where each cane-meets-stone crack is a marker of withered age and punctured hopes, is one of the film’s few visual grace notes. And Wilder’s verbal introduction to the character – bored, disinterested, vaguely hopeless in a quieted tone that suggests a corporate speech – is perfectly attuned to the darker elements of the character. Paternalistic, patronizing air of disinterest and obligation hoarsely throbbing through his voice, Wilder is the dangerous glue holding together a film that is never worse than merely circumspect but seldom better either.