Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole, Roy Kinnear
Extras: Commentary Track, Retrospective Documentary, Behind the Scenes Featurette, Theatrical Trailer, Still Gallery, Sing Along Songs

I began this project remembering that I might still have the golden ticket theaters handed out to patrons during the 1971 theatrical run of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." After digging around my garage, amid some View Master reels and a few movie buttons lay the slightly worn slip of paper. As I write this review, it sits next to my keyboard.

"Willy Wonka" seems to gain meaning for me, as I get older. Roald Dahl’s classic parable about childishness and chocolate resonates with keen observations about how grown-up petulance starts before puberty and how a good heart "shines in a weary world." Warner Home Video’s sparkling new thirtieth anniversary special edition DVD goes even further, allowing fans to catch up with the five actors who portrayed "the Wonka kids." Through a running <$commentary,commentary track> and J.M Kenny’s superb retrospective documentary "Pure Imagination," listening to Julie Dawn Cole ("Veruca Salt") talk about her kids or Denise Nickerson ("Violet Beauregard") reveal her on-set crush for Peter Ostrum ("Charlie Bucket") is a welcome tonic to the Peter Pan syndrome of never growing up.

Reclusive candy making genius Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder, playing up Wonka’s benign devilishness) sponsors a once-in-several-lifetimes contest by hiding five Golden Tickets amongst the millions of Wonka bars sold all over the world. Each winner receives a tour of the candy factory guided by Mr. Wonka himself as well as an endless supply of scrumdilyumptious chocolates. Poor but honest Charlie Bucket would love to win, if only to help his family. They always have cabbage water for dinner and both sets of grandparents have shared the same bed for the last twenty years.

One by one, the tickets find their way into the hands of children with less honorable aspirations. Spoiled brat Veruca gets her ticket through the "shelling" resources of daddy’s peanut factory. Ever-eating but not necessarily hungry Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) pities Wonka, bragging he will cost Wonka "a fortune in chocolate." Violet stopped her incessant chewing gum habit just long enough to find her auric passport. Mike TeeVee (Paris Themmen) stumbles onto his ticket in between Westerns and TV dinners. And Charlie? Like all good little boys, he wishes for providence but not at anyone’s expense. Sure enough, the cosmos rewards him the remaining prize. Once inside Wonka’s sugary surrealist realm, revelations await the unsuspecting guests as each face their foibles that may (or may not) define their adult lives.

The film contains so many pleasures; it’s hard to summarize them. The production design by Harper Goff (best known for designing the Nautilus for Disney’s "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea") plugged into every childhood fantasy of limitless candy. (The Chocolate Room still ranks as one of my favorite film images.) Director Mel Stuart’s approach to the material (via Roald Dahl and David Seltzer’s script) has a maturity about it while never losing the child’s perspective. Bollner, Cole, Ostrum, Nickerson, and Themmen work so well in their respective parts that until the documentary I simply assumed they never grew up. Yet the whole affair would be one colorful but empty exercise if it were not for Gene Wilder. His unpredictable delivery strikes the right balance of terror and awe…almost as if speaking in code to our inner, sometimes buried, child.

The <$OpenMatte,open matte> full-frame transfer exhibits superb color rendition. Compared to the previous DVD release, the image here bursts with every shade of the rainbow. Deep, deep black levels and excellent contrast balance make the Chocolate Room spring to life. Sharp detail delineation means we see every bubble in Wonka’s chocolate river. (Look at Charlie’s red sweater in the first scene. I never saw how well worn it is until watching this disc.) The psychedelic hues of the "Wonkatania" segment come through with no bleeding or video noise. The source print showed relatively few blemishes. Fleshtones swing from natural to Oompa-Loompa orange to an occasional brownish tint. Whereas the first release did exhibit some <$pixelation,pixelation> (particularly noticeable in the opening fade-in and the "Pure Imagination" sequence), they are absent on the new version. Here, the picture is never less than smooth, solid and steady.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio engages the entire soundfield mostly for the musical numbers. For the rest of the film, seemingly all sound emanated from the center channel. The only time I noticed any sound effects coming from the rear speakers was, again, during the "Wonkatania" sequence. Fidelity is a little thin, given the age of the soundtrack, but dialogue plays cleanly (it distorted only once) and the music swells never overtaxed the tweeters. Audio options include French, Spanish and Portuguese mono soundtracks.

The truly special supplements start with the nostalgic documentary "Pure Imagination." Produced by special edition vet J.M. Kenny, the half hour look-back features all new interviews with director Mel Stuart, producer David L. Wolper, screenwriter David Seltzer, Gene Wilder and the five Wonka kids, er, adults. They individually reminisce about the production, laced with fondness and a genuine admiration for the durability of the "Wonka" phenomenon. Gene talks about tackling the part (he insisted on the "tumble entrance") and also singles out one of the kids as a "pain." Kenny liberally intersperses behind the scenes footage, showing Roald Dahl on the Chocolate Room set and songwriters Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse working on the score (we get a rare snippet of Newley singing "Pure Imagination"). As a nice coda, Kenny ends the documentary with a sub-section titled "And We All Must Grow Up," where each brings their lives up to date. Peter’s comments about the importance of talking with kids about the choices we make are especially poignant.

The <$commentary,commentary track> with the "Wonka five" practically unfolds like a soap opera! Denise and Julie had crushes on Peter and shared him on different days! (No joke, they frequently refer to how they would take turns cooing over him.) The conversation runs from production trivia (according to Bollner, the Chocolate River was very cold) to contemporary observations (Peter and Julie have some hair raising stories about their character’s hairstyles) to guilty confessions (Julie spills the beans about "nicking" certain props from the set…and still having them). Everybody laughs, ribs each other and gives glimpses into what it was like working on some of the fantastic sets.

A four-minute promotional featurette from 1971 takes a more traditional approach to documenting the production, focusing mostly on Harper Goff and the sets. The source materials are quite grainy and the sound tinny. Better to conceal the over-earnest narration.

In the "Wonka Sing Along" section, viewers can karaoke their way through four songs: "I’ve Got a Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," "I Want It Now," and the Oompa Loompa song (the Veruca Salt version). The disc access the designated chapter, then fancy script at the bottom third of the screen gives the lyrics with highlights at the appropriate moments. The songs may be selected individually or hit the "Play All" option. However, when I tried the Oompa Loompa song several times, no lyrics popped up. (I can’t determine if it’s my player or a technical glitch.) Cute but geared more to kids.

The theatrical trailer is from the original theatrical release. Presented in <$PS,widescreen>, the trailer touches all the right bases in selling the film’s whimsy, music and fantasy. The original DVD release offered the trailer for the 1996 25th anniversary release, which does not appear here.

An eighteen-still Photo Gallery frames publicity photos of the stars and sets within candy bars and can be advanced with the Chapter Forward button. The animated menus follow the "Wonkavator" concept: any time a new section is accessed, a glass elevator door (etched with a big "W") slides into frame and we "reach" the option accompanied by elevator sound effects. Sounds logical to me.

Warner’s new "Wonka" DVD was a complete joy to watch. (While I personally do not mind watching the full-frame version – especially since it is an <$OpenMatte,open matte> transfer that actually adds picture information at the top and bottom of the screen, an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> release with the same supplements will be released in November.) It’s a special edition with a small heart crammed into a big DVD. Strike that, reverse it.