Years ago I read a review of "Willy Wonka" that said it was the kind of movie parents love to drag their kids to and both of them, parents and kids, get bored. I doubt it. I never met anyone personally who didn't like this 1971 children's fantasy, youngsters or adults. In fact, it may be the sort of children's film that is as much or more appreciated by older teens and adults as by younger kids.
Last year a student in one of my junior English classes mentioned aloud, for reasons I can't remember, the Oompa-Loompas, and everyone in the room recognized and seemed to appreciate the little people from the story. In the last thirty years the whole movie has come to be officially institutionalized in our society, like "Snow White" and "Bambi." It is, in fact, a modern classic, and Warner Bros. have appropriately commemorated its thirtieth anniversary with two new special editions.
The structure of "Willy Wonka" is much the same as "The Wizard of Oz." A child goes on a magical journey filled with laughter, adventure, fantasy, and songs and learns a valuable lesson along the way. Children's writer Roald Dahl ("James and the Giant Peach," "The Witches") adapted the screenplay from his own book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and the film was directed by Mel Stuart ("If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," "One Is A Lonely Number"). Dahl was always a writer with more than children in mind, which is why "Willy Wonka" is so bizarre and entertaining for adults. It stars Gene Wilder as the world's greatest chocolate maker, a mysterious figure who has long ago locked himself in his factory and hasn't been seen since. But for reasons that only become clear at the end of the movie, he decides to hold a contest. Inside five Wonka Bars he has hidden Golden Tickets worth a trip inside his immense candy factory, plus a lifetime supply of chocolate. The world goes nuts trying to find the prize tickets.
The first person to strike gold is young Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a greedy, gluttonous, sloppy little German boy who is always eating. The second person to find a ticket is Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), a rich, spoiled, selfish, nasty brat. The third person is Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), a pushy, bad-mannered child who holds the world's record for chewing the same piece of gum. The fourth is Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), a rude smart aleck, who watches television all day long. The fifth winner is our hero, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), an honest, helpful, loving, hardworking lad.
The first third of the film takes us through the events leading up to their entrance into the candy factory, and it's the part of the film I've always enjoyed the most. Charlie is so poor he lives in a one-room shack with his mother and both pairs of grandparents. The four grandparents occupy a single bed that they haven't gotten out of in years. When Charlie wins his prize, he's allowed to take one person with him and he chooses his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson). Joe is not only a grandfather, he's Charlie's best friend and supporter: "Don't worry, Charlie, you'll find a Golden Ticket," he says, never giving up hope for his grandson.
The setting is never told, but it's clearly a storybook German town. The actual location shots were done in Munich, the city's gas works filling in for the chocolate factory. Once inside the factory, Mr. Wonka is anything but what we expect, and Wilder has a field day playing a character we sometimes think has a screw loose. His utter composure as each child is devilishly dispatched--one up a chocolate flue, a second going down a "bad egg" sorter, another turned into a giant blueberry, and yet a fourth disintegrating into television atoms--is a joy.
Finally, there are the songs, with lyrics and music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley: "The Candy Man," "Cheer Up, Charlie," "I've Got a Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," "Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do," and "I Want It Now." Not all of it gels well, and some of the film can seem mean-spirited, but it isn't meant to be. Who can deny that the overall response is positive, playful fun?
Now, about those two Special Editions I mentioned earlier. To celebrate the film's thirtieth birthday, Warners decided to issue the film in two separate versions, one in full-frame and one in widescreen. They had already released the film on DVD several years earlier in a double-sided format that included a widescreen version on one side and a standard-screen version on the other. This time out they wanted to add some bonus material, discussed below, and were apparently faced with the problem of how to accommodate it. Since Warners use a snapper case, there was little chance of including a second disc, the packaging not permitting it; and since a double-sided, dual-layered DVD is costly and hard to manufacture, something had to go in order to fit in the new bonuses on a single-sided, dual-layered disc. Obviously, some anguished decision-making went on among the Warner brass: Do we get rid of the widescreen or the standard screen to make room for everything else, or do we offer two different packages? Now, you or I wouldn't find such a decision difficult. The DVD-buying public long ago made their preference clear for anamorphic widescreen. But the problem was not so cut-and-dried as that. Nothing is easy. I was told by a Warners' spokesperson that the company's research shows that buyers like to purchase "family-oriented films" in the full-frame format. I question their data and how long ago it was taken, but it's what prompted the studio to issue the two separate releases about two months apart.
Alas, things are still never so simple, because the new full-screen edition they give us is, in fact, not a true pan-and-scan rendering of the film at all; that is, Warners did not take a portion of the widescreen image and blow it up to fill the entire 1.33:1 area of a television screen. After comparing a dozen or more scenes in the new full-screen edition to the exact spots on the new widescreen edition, I found the new full-frame version to have cut off only a fraction more image information left or right, while providing more information top and bottom. The new full-screen edition would appear to be closer in size to the original film frame stock from which the widescreen was matted, although, interestingly, there are size differences between this new full-screen and Warners' old standard cut of the film. (Damn, isn't anything easy?) What's best, though, is that the colors in the new editions are cleaner, sharper, brighter, richer, deeper, and better defined than on the old editions, ostensibly the result of new transfers or better production techniques.
I, too, would rather see a film presented in the home the same way it was presented in a theater. I, too, stand on the principle that widescreen is better, remembering that in a few years widescreen TVs will be the norm and these standard or full-screen affairs will have huge blacked-out areas to the left and right of their image. I, too, when given the choice to watch a film in widescreen or full-screen always choose the widescreen, even when I've measured the two and found the full-screen to provide more information. I, too, enjoy widescreen even though I know that widescreen DVD editions are themselves slightly less wide than their theatrical counterparts, information always lost to the sides because of the manufacturers' fudging and the home playback equipment overscanning. So, like you, I wish Warners had found a way to offer both a widescreen and a full-screen version of the film on the same disc and let us, the viewers, make the decision which one to watch. Oh, well. Now you can make the decision which one to buy.
As for sound, it appears to be the same as before, a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that delivers good front-channel stereo separation and decent rear-channel ambiance.
The new special features are, indeed, fun, and maybe they're worth the loss of two separate screen formats. The first item is a feature-length audio commentary with the five Wonka kids, now grown up--Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole, Denise Nickerson, Pris Themmen, and Michael Bollner. It's a delight to hear about the filmmaking process from the perspective of these adults looking back on their childhood experiences. With time constraints as they are, I seldom find the chance (or have the desire) to listen all the way through an audio commentary, but I did listen to this one and found it highly entertaining and rewarding. Then, there's a brand-new, thirty-minute documentary, "Pure Imagination: The Story of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," that includes interviews with Gene Wilder and the other stars of the film, its director, producer, cowriter, even one of the Oompa-Loompa actors. Among other things, we're told the film was purposely made for adults, so maybe that explains why it doesn't play down to kids. Also, we are told that the Quaker Oats Company put up the money to make the film, hoping to bring out a Wonka chocolate bar at the time of the film's release. That's why the film's title was changed from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." However, something went wrong with the candy bar and it never caught on, but after a disappointing start the film caught on and grew into a classic.
Following the commentary and documentary, there are four sing-along songs to participate in: "Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," "I Want It Now," and "Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do." Next, there's a 1971 behind-the-scenes featurette, lasting about four minutes; a brief photo gallery; cast and crew listings with information not about the filmmakers themselves but about the characters they play; forty scene selections; and, ironically, a widescreen theatrical trailer, somewhat worn and fuzzy. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese are the options both for spoken languages and subtitles.
Anyway, whether you choose full-screen or wide, these new special editions of "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" are great family entertainment, colorful and playful for kids, sophisticated and witty for adults. The movie is filled with good humor, good acting, especially from Wilder and Albertson, and good songs; it's a little drippy at times but just off kilter enough to keep everyone's attention. A fun film.