I don’t have a clear recollection of the first time I ever watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As memory serves, it just seemed to show up on our television unbidden and suck me into it’s insanity for awhile. I know for a fact that I watched the film mostly out of a bizarre sense of duty. You were a child and Willy Wonka came on, you watched it. End of story.
I am also not certain of whether or not I actually enjoyed watching it. Let’s face it: the film is creepy. Wonka is creepy, the factory is creepy, the Oompa Loompas are creepy- it’s a borderline distressing cautionary tale masquerading as a fun, candy-filled musical. Add to that the depressing home life of our hero Charlie Bucket, and it’s a bit of a downer.
I am by no means suggesting that it is not a well made film. The story is actually an incredible fantasy, expected from a film based on a Roald Dahl book. The set design and costuming are bright and imaginatively engrossing, the cast is well chosen (Gene Wilder encapsulates the absurd charm and terrifying judgement of the title character perfectly) and the direction holds all the craziness together like toffee. What I am saying is that it’s strange and unsettling.
The story is simple enough. The mysterious owner of the inaccessible factory launches a contest in which the five children who find golden tickets hidden in his Wonka Bars will get to enter the gates. The children are as diverse in background as they are in their vices and from there the plot unfolds.
Remembering my childhood impression of the film, there was discomfort and fear mixed in with the entertainment. The songs are definitely catchy and the excitement of the contest and factory tour contagious. It’s what happens on the tour that is unexpected from a children’s film. Yes, the kids were awful and obviously embodied the sins I was warned about on Sunday mornings. But unlike vague Bible stories that held the lessons of the deadly sins, this movie showed the instant punishment of transgressors by a wrathful god-like entity. Heavy stuff for an afternoon in front of the TV.
As an adult, the film seems almost more odd as a family movie. Sitting down to watch it with my kids found me fielding questions about why Wonka is so scary and weird and how anyone could let their kids behave so badly without punishment. Regardless of whether you think it a fun romp through a fantasy world or a terrifying plunge into morality, the message is still clear: be good because even if you get away with it for awhile, you’ll get your just desserts.