Saturday, March 15, 2008


After Missy was in bed last night, Mojo and I snuggled in with the Peeper to introduce him to one of the world's truly offbeat pleasures: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"It's been some years since I watched this film last, and I had honestly forgotten:

1) What an appalling drip the part of Charlie Bucket is. He's the saintly Little Princess who loves his mom, gives all his money to charity, does his homework and exactly what the teacher says. He's the kid at school who always made you want to rub snot in his hair. The child actor, Peter Ostrum, who plays him in the movie, isn't bad, exactly, but the part is so diabetic-coma-inducing that you can't help wanting to strangle the angelic little Bubbles.

2) The number of truly awful songs, hitting rock bottom with "Cheer Up, Charlie", where the curly-headed little Snoogums' Mom reminds him that no matter how much his life sucks which, in this case, it does like a gigantic industrial shopvac, it's still terrific to be YOU!. Eeegah. That said, there are also several treats, but most of them related to the real heart of the flick.

Which is, simply stated, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.

Frankly, it's a tossup whether it's worth watching the first third of the film at all. You miss the setup where you're shoved to stand in the "Charlie the Great" corner, but you also miss the craptacular songs and all the nobility of the ingratiating little fellow Charlie. The movie begins for me when Gene totters out of the factory door, does his forward roll and comes up as, well, Gene-as-Willy-Wonka.
The wonderful thing about the performance is that you're never quite sure if the enigmatic candymaker is really quite mad or just playful and eccentric. My personal take, BTW, has been for mad and bad - perhaps one of the most delightfully sinister sequences in moviedom is the "Pure Imagination" scene, where Gene leads the greedy little group of visitors into his magic kingdom singing about how your imagination can lead you to paradise (while the Bad Children race about filling their pieholes knowing that they're going to shop Wonka's imagination to his rival Slugworth - except for Noble Charlie, of course). Everything about the scene is a fight between the innocent words of the song and the candyland set and Wilder's interpretation of them, from the curious minor key he sings to the herky-jerky dance down the stairsteps, where he puzzles and disconcerts the group with his odd stop-and-start and the sudden slashing of his cane. It's maaahvelous.

Wilder is simply a joy throughout, a completely unrestrained id in kinetic motion, a force of Nature, quoting Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Keats and Shakespeare while his inventions dispose of the Nasty Children in cleverly appropriate ways (at one point, Wilder turns to the survivors and coos: "Two greedy, bad little children gone, three sweet, good children left..."). He gives you the combinaton of delight and frightening power that comes from pure creative intelligence. He IS the movie, and while he's center stage it's a hell of a lot of fun.

It's far from a perfect flick: it does violence to the Dahl book, which is a worthy kid's classic; Wilder is WAY too young for the part, and both the dreary first portion and the odd little ending, where the whole adventure turns out to be a setup for making Charlie the Next Willy Wonka (am I the only person who thought this the most impossible thing in a movie full of flying elevators and chocolate-colored dwarves? Noble Charlie succeeding Mad Scientist Willy? Never happen...) are drags.

But - ignore all that and you can concentrate on enjoying one of the great performances in Western acting - Gene Wilder as the Greatest Madboy Evah.

1 comment:

walternatives said...

I can't begin to adequately describe how much I LOVE that movie. Every friggin' bit, but especially the oompa-lumpas AND Gene, beloved Gene. The wierdest part for me, though - what creeped me out the most - was all four grandparents sleeping in one bed.

Have you watched Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang recently? Watch it first without the Peeps, as halfway through, it abruptly seems to turn into a bad acid trip.