Friday, July 15, 2011

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart)

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.

Oh, If only I can turn back time. A review coming from a person that has first watched the 2005 Tim Burton adaptation way before this family classic, I got my perspectives the wrong way. I got the comparative order jumbled. When it should have been the later film being compared to the numerous strengths of the earlier one, I had it the other way around. But enough of that, let's move on.

Throughout the entire time I'm watching this film, I can't help but feel that the Willy Wonka character has virtually no backstory, let alone the exposition of his real reason why he closed his factory to the public save for Grandpa Joe's (played by Jack Albertson) unimaginative retelling of the said tale. But beyond Wonka's build-up in the film that may potentially treat his character merely as a golden ticket distributor, moderator and tour guide into the whole film and nothing more, Gene Wilder bursts into the scenery with impeccable style in the most literal sense.

As he first walks through a red carpet, with supporting cane and all, that stretches from his factory's double-doors up to the very external entrance gate, I immediately felt the enigma within him and his internalization of the Wonka role. And then he left the cane sticking into the ground and act as if he's falling, face first. But suddenly, he tumbles and regained his footing all in one motion with the honed finesse and energy of an effortless master acrobat. In that scene alone, I almost completely forgot about Johnny Depp's portrayal, and also from that point on, my ready-made comparison between the two actors immediately came into a halt. Gene Wilder, in the simplest of terms, owned Willy Wonka. He inhabited him and vice versa; shame that the said iconic character wasn't given enough story flesh to bulk him up a bit more in terms of his relative weight to the whole narrative fare. And it's more of a disappointment that the film was titled as "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" despite of the fact that it just doesn't feel like he's the center of the film.

Now, with that said, I can still fairly say that I have enjoyed the film as a whole, although I would have much preferred it if the two musical sequences before the factory scenes were removed as they just do not add anything to the film whatsoever. Yes, maybe the sense of melancholy and joy (Mrs. Bucket's song and the dance scene between Charlie and Grandpa Joe) are the specific emotions that were targeted to be conveyed in these scenes, but both could have been achieved with a more linear approach. And both songs aren't just that catchy at all.

But then, there's the production design. The tagline of the film is "Enter a world of pure imagination". If it tends to be more accurate, I think they should have added 'silly' somewhere in the middle of the sentence, but that's not an insult. Not at all. Unfolding the premises of Wonka's factory, the film has unveiled machines, mechanisms and devices that are laughable at best. But thinking about it all, I think the film completely distanced itself from the wondrous imagery of common fantasy and instead extended its hands and fully embraced its surreal, weird, bordering traumatic, but ultimately joyous and imaginatively quirky side. A beverage that makes a person who drinks it float up the air, a gum that simulates a three-course dinner, a flavored wall, and even a nightmarish boat ride. It is torn between the fantastically linear and the bizarre, but I think it chose to lean on the latter more.

And somewhere between the film's intent of appealing to the general audience and to connect with fantasy film admirers is an uncommon purpose to expose the darker, more desolate side of loneliness and eccentricity. Take note of Wonka's song number near the beginning of the factory scenes and his preacher-like blabbering during the boat ride scene. These key moments, beyond the unadulterated sense of fun, awe and hilarity, suggestively show his on and off, in and out flirt with lunacy. But the plot twist of sort in the end is the true depiction of Wonka's character's real intention, narrative-wise: that after all, he is the delivery boy of the film's moral lesson and the enforcer of the rewards to those who successfully align themselves with it.

Willy Wonka. The eccentric and the weird. His peculiarities, superficiality and unorthodox authority. Moved and touched by a gobstopper. Even in its ultimate emotional justification, the film is imbalanced at best. But the way it was executed and served in its colorful banquet of images and characters that includes a bunch of Oompa-Loompas that seem like Munchkin rejects, was quite effective. And also, it slightly pokes fun of media (the way it has covered Willy Wonka's 'Golden Ticket' craze), the virtue of fads and the conscious mass hysteria that roots out from the trivial promises of mass-consumed products. So, aside from being an exuberant adaptation of a beloved Roald Dahl classic, it's also quite loaded with what it has to say.


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