Saturday, April 20, 2019

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) (Movie Review)

      It’s the Easter season again, and traditionally around this time of year I review something with a religious backdrop. This year however, I wanted to do something different … but what to discuss? Other general Easter themed movies are hard to come by, and most of them are terrible. Well ... there just happens to be a little movie from 1971 that I find myself re-watching around this time of year … the family musical classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. While the film obviously has no direct tie-in with the holiday, there’s still something magical about it, the look of it, and the feel of it that just fits right along with all the decorations, colors and treats found in the Easter baskets of the season. Initially when I was a kid, I had heard of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, but didn’t have any initial interest in watching it, as a film revolving around a boy visiting a candy factory just sounded boring to me. Much to my good fortune, I saw the movie for the first time during a third-grade class, and I distinctly remember saying to myself when it was done … “that’s a film I’ll be keeping with me for life”. There’s really no point it building up the film any more, as it’s often cited as a motion picture classic. Never the less, I’m in the mood to talk about one of my childhood favorites, and hopefully in the process I'll remind modern viewers why it’s deserving of it’s favored title. Also, in this review, I’ll be comparing some things with the original book written by Roald Dahl, as the popularity of the film dose frequently overshadow an otherwise great children’s book.

      The film is adapted by the children’s book titled “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, which was authored by the aforementioned Roald Dahl. Charlie Bucket is a small boy who comes from a poor family, and despite his living conditions, he tries his best to be optimistic, and loving. Yet deep down, he wants something special to wish for, and dream of. 
One thing that lingers on his mind is the mysterious Wonka chocolate factory, which is in full production, producing sweet’s for kids, but it remains locked, with no-one ever going in or out. What secrets lie within, what delicious treasure could be discovered, and just who’s operating the factory when no-one is ever seen entering the building. One day, it’s announced that five golden tickets have been hidden within select chocolate bars, and the lucky winners get a special tour of the factory, and one child will be given the greatest surprise gift of all. The first half of the movie focuses on the Wonka contest, as we meet our five principle children who find the tickets, four of which are spoiled, self-centered brats. Most importantly we spend time with Charlie in his everyday life as the competition unfolds around him. 

The second half is the tour of the factory, and the point where the movie begins its new life as a journey through a child’s fantasy land. While the place seems like a normal factory on the outside … inside is a world of pure imagination. In essence, it’s less about story, and more about an experience into a fantastical setting. It’s all about watching these everyday people go from one colorful, imaginative location in the factory to another, and no two rooms are the same. Some are very whimsical, some provide a lot of goofy comedy, some are technical marvels, some of it can be a little spooky, and some rooms are just quirky oddities. Funny enough, the film also follows the outline of a “SAW” movie, in which each room tests one of the kids, and each child in turn gets removed from the film do to their failures. Wonka through it all even acts like a puppet master who knows in his mind exactly how everything is going to unfold. The thread that gives the experience substance is Charlie himself, who likewise is put to the test on what the virtues are for being a good kid, and not greedy like the others.

       Despite Wonka’s name is in the title of the movie, and commonly the character taking up the most space on the poster, this film is absolutely Charlies story. While he’s certainly a good kid, he’s not without fault. Sometimes he can be a little selfish, and other times he lets his curiosity get the best of him. Thus, in the end it’s all the more rewarding to see how far he’s matured, and how he proves to be selfless when faced with an opportunity to make money. Peter Ostrum played Charlie Bucket, and it turned out to be both his very first and last acting role. While Peter has expressed nothing but love for his experience on the film, he also never aspired a career in acting, and decided to follow his own dreams. I congratulate him for his choice, but I also want to compliment him for his performance in this role. Child acting is perhaps the most challenging thing to get right in a movie, but Peter Ostrum in my view gave a perfect performance for his age, and made every emotion feel real. Roald Dahl, the author of the original book always viewed Charlie as the principle character, hence why his name was in the title of the book. Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan of how Wonka seemed to steal the spot light in the movie. Truthfully, while Wonka is certainly a scene steal-er, I think he missed how well realized Charlies character was, that he was the one with a character arc, and that he’s absolutely the center piece of the story ... unlike the 2005 remake staring Johnny Depp, in which Wonka was actually the main character with the only story arc.  

      All the remaining kid actors brought their respected roles to life with distinct quirks, but the one other child star who really stands out is Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt, who’s easily the most spoiled and bad-tempered child of them all. This has to be one of my personal favorite child performances, as she is fiercely committed to the part, and is bursting with fiery energy in every scene. While I’ve seen okay bratty kid performances, Veruca is just this insane tornado of relentless built-up emotion. On a side note, as far as child singing is concerned, she’s perfectly passable, and her song “I want it now” makes for a great villain song in its own right. Also, I can’t forget about the late Jack Albertson and his infectiously lovable performance as Charlies Grandpa Joe. While he could have easily been written off as just the wise and friendly grandfather, he’s also a bit stubborn, a pinch reckless, and it gives him more of a realized character to portray. In general, I love seeing old men that still retain the beating heart of a child, and Grandpa Jo is just brimming with a young spirit despite his age. Speaking personally for a second, both of my late grandfathers retained so much of that same childhood spirit in their late ages, and I see so much of them both in Jack Albertson’s performance. 

      At last, lets talk about the main man himself, the late great Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Strait to the point … this is one of my absolute favorite character performances in all of cinema. Right from the characters introduction scene of him faking a cripple leg in front of a large crowd, only to reveal he’s actually rather spry ... it just hooks you right into his captivating screen presence.

Obviously, his purple suit and funny hat are iconic, but it was Gene Wilder himself in the role who made the character come to life. What makes his performance work is the duality on display, as he captures the relentless warmth of a friendly figure, but also the quirkiness of a mad doctor who may or may not be trustworthy. It’s a very animated performance to say the least, but it’s also restrained in just the right ways, and that’s where Gene shines. He knew exactly how to keep enough personality tucked inside, while also being very looney with the delivery. There’s one too many memorable quirks and funny lines to recap, but a personal favorite of mine is when he drops a pair of shoes in a boiling pot of food and says … “that will give it a little more kick”. I also love this one moment in which he drinks out of a candy tea cup, and after a brief hesitation … he decides to go ahead and eat the cup too. It goes without saying that a whole generation of children were introduced to Gene Wilder through his performance as Willy Wonka, and it’s the character that I associate with him the most. Having said that, I don’t want to undermine that he was unmistakably a comedic titan in the 70’s, namely for his roles in Mel Brooks classics like “The Producers”, “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”. I should note that Roald Dahl was once again not of fan of Gene Wilder in the role, as he really wanted to see his character played by the great Spike Milligan. While I’m sure he could have done something credible in the role, I just couldn’t picture anyone else but Gene Wilder in the part.

        The factory itself functions as a character, and it’s likewise what helps keep the film so engaging to watch. The first half of the movie actually does a good job holding the viewers interest, but then in the second half we finally enter this amazing, wondrous setting, and the entertainment value is bumped up to eleven. Even though most of the look and aesthetics on display are very 1970’s, there’s still something to admire about all the practical effects, crazy sets, and designs of each room. I especially love that each location in the factory has its own distinct feel and personality. My favorite elements of the factory are actually all the little details spread throughout, like the lick-able wall paper, the coat hangers that actually crab the coats, and the randomly placed sign listing off various creams leading up to ... “Hair Cream”. My favorite scene of all, which wasn’t even in the original book, was the Wonka-mobile … a giant car that can’t drive 12 feet without spitting-up tons of soap on its passengers. I always looked at this as the most “fun” moment of the film, as it doesn’t involve spoiled children in danger, and it establishes a subtle contrast between the passengers. Charlie and his grandpa are loving it and having fun, while the others can’t stand getting soap on them. 

       Now let’s talk about one of the film’s most famous moments … the tunnel scene. This is the textbook definition of a scary scene existing in a family film just for the sake of a random spooky scene, and in my opinion … it’s all the better for it. For me, classic family films are all the more special when there’s that one random scene that sticks with us for being completely out of left field, and out of context with the rest of the movie. During the tour of Wonda’s factory, the guests take a seemingly peaceful ride on a ferry that’s calmly sailing a chocolate river. 

Then it literally takes a dark turn down a mysterious tunnel, full of neon lights, warped visuals (obvious 70’s anesthetic's), and all kinds of random nightmare imagery that’s terrifying the passengers. We get images of a Snake slithering over someone’s face, tense eyeball closeups, creepy crawly critters, dark suited men, and a chicken getting its head cut off. It’s absolutely bonkers, has nothing to do with the story, makes no sense in the context of the film, and yet, somehow the experience just feels more complete with a randomly placed creepy scene. In general, I love family films that convey a variety of emotions in one package. This movie has its whimsical moments, sad moments, funny moments, exciting moments, and a little bit of fear just completes the package. While this scene definitely took me by surprise as a kid, I really don’t remember it scaring me that much. If anything, I remember I was actually disappointed that there wasn’t more creepy imagery on display then what we got. It should come as no surprise that, while there was a ferry ride in the book, it was heavily altered for the film ... you can probably imagine how author Roald Dahl felt about that.    

      On that note, Roald Dahl has publicly disowned the film, and was furious with the final result. Originally, he wrote the screen play for the movie, but it was heavily altered by screen writer David Seltzer, who’s largely responsible for all the memorable scenes from the film that were absent from the book. Speaking personally, I’m of the opinion that a movie adaption should be faithful to the source material, but it should also create its own unique moments, and tweak the story just enough so that it’s familiar, but with its own unique identity. I already mentioned the added scene with Wonka’s bubbly car, but there’s a lot more that I’d like to compare to the book. The Oompa Loompas in the book resembled normal people, just very small, but I’ve always preferred the movies re-design with the orange faces and green hair, as it just made them stand out as unique creatures. The shady Slugworth character, who was a very minor part in the book was also given a larger role in the movie. This annoyed Roald Dahl to no end as he felt the film was trying to shoe horn in a pointless villain. I find that ironic as Roald Dahl created the Child Catcher for the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, and he was a villain that wasn’t even featured in the original source material. Furthermore, while Slugworth had a traditional shadowy presence, he certainly wasn’t a villain, was even revealed to be working for Wonka the whole time, and ended up playing an important role in Charlies character arc.

      The majority of the consequences of the naughty kids, like the boy stuck in the pip, the girl transforming into a blueberry and the TV obsessed kid shrinking in Wonka’s machine were all carried over faithfully from the book … but Veruca Salt getting dumped down with the garbage was very different. 

In the book, it’s a room full of squirrels making Chocolate Nuts, then when Veruca gets out of hand, and is dropped down the trash shoot, Wonka responds with … “She was a bad nut”. The movie changed this scene to giant geese laying Golden Chocolate Eggs for Easter, and this time when Veruca drops, Wonka responds with ... “She was a bad Egg”. Again, speaking personally, I’ll always prefer the giant geese as they tie-in with my love for watching this movie around Easter time. The scene with the “fizzy lifting drinks” was another completely original sequence for the movie. Aside from being a very fun scene with our two principle characters flying around, I also felt this served as an important part in Charlies arc. This was the incident that showed how Charlie was capable of making mistakes, by letting his curiosity get the better of him, and it made the resolution at the end all the more effective when we see how much he’d learned from then. The scene in Wonka’s office was also created for the movie, and in my opinion, the story was all the stronger for it. This was the emotional highlight, as we saw Charlie pass one final test from Wonka. On a side note, I’ve always loved the design of Wonka’s office, as all his furniture was split in half, and served as a metaphor of the characters split duality. Wonka’s glass elevator was also featured more prominently in the book, but I thought saving it for the climax of the movie worked fine.

      So, is there anything added in the movie that I didn’t care for … um, there certainly is in the first half. Most obviously, I never understood why this movie focused on so many adults that were obsessing over Wonka’s Golden tickets, especially when the tickets were clearly meant for children only. What’s worse, there are some ponderous detours with pointless characters going to absurd lengths to get their hands on these darn things. It gets so stupid that there’s actually a moment when a random woman’s husband gets abducted, and his life will be terminated if she doesn’t surrender her collection of Wonka bars. 

The scene is bad enough, but it’s made even worse when the wife is hesitant to give up her stupid candy bars over her husband’s life. These moronic scenes with the adults should have been completely removed, as they did nothing but pad the movie out. Also, while I’ve always loved the songs for their memorable lyrics, I’m not the biggest fan of the musical numbers as their presented. The staging in kind of generic, the singing doesn’t always sound that great, and some of them like “Cheer Up Charlie” and “The Candy Man” song are just kind of boring to watch. The musical number “I’ve got a Golden Ticket” is a song that I absolutely adore in-of-itself, but as a scene in the film, it’s almost relentlessly corny to watch. The “Oompa Loompa” songs are perfect all around, and a rare case in which the music is actually lifted right from the original book. Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” song is another great one that I love all around, and even though Gene Wilder doesn’t exactly have a great singing voice, there’s still something about the passion and commitment he puts into the song that makes it work. Also, the instrumental score on its own is outstanding, and even earned an Oscar nomination for best original music score. As soon as the movie begins with that memorable opening credit sequence in the chocolate factory, and that music chimes in … I’m instantly in a good mood.    

     In general, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is right on par with the likes of “The Wizard of Oz” as one of the great family movie classics. Despite being an obvious product of the 70’s, it’s still remained timeless, and I’d hate for any childhood to be without it. It’s a film that conveys thoughtful messages to kids, but also gives them a great variety of fun and wonderment. I think most people who have grown-up with a passion for films might just have had been inspired by “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, and maybe without realizing it.

Without a doubt, it’s one of those special movies that broadens the imagination in young viewers, and possibly even older viewers. For me, I’ve always looked back on this film as an example of what movies should do best, which is transport the audience from the familiar, have them enter a world of creativity, experience a variety of emotional highlights along the way, return back to the real world feeling refreshed, and possibly even learned something meaningful along the way. If you’d prefer an adaption that’s closer to Roald Dahl’s original book, you can watch Tim Burton’s 2004 remake “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” starring Johnny Depp. That version was almost a perfect recreation of the book with minimal alterations, but personally, I never felt that it captured the same warmth or charming appeal of the original film. That’s not to say it was a terrible remake, just … not bar of chocolate. It goes without saying that I still love the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, just as much as I did as a kid, and with modern day entertainment getting less enchanting, and more commercial, it’s something that I’ve pushed for younger viewers to discover or in the cases of some parents … re-discover. If you’re someone who regrettably missed this film at any point in your life, do yourself a favor this Easter and treat both yourself and possibly the whole family to one of the most delicious films ever made.

 I give “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” a strong 4 ½ stars out of 5.     

Top 10 King Kong Battles

May 2019 will mark the premier of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”, which means we’re only one year away before we finally see a modern-day version of “Godzilla vs King Kong”. With the new Godzilla movie holding us over until then, I thought I should shine some light on King Kong, and highlight some of his most iconic theatrical moments. While Godzilla is famous for his giant monster battles, Kong has less, but there still just as noteworthy. So, for this post, I’ll be counting down my top 10 personal favorite King Kong battles, but only the ones in which he fights another giant monster.

#10 King Kong versus The Plesiosaur from 1933 “King Kong” 

While getting to know the girl Ann Darrow, Kong proves quite irresponsible when it comes to letting unwanted guests into his house. Into their mists slithers an aquatic beast known as a Plesiosaur, who puts a strangle hold on Kong. While this battle isn’t on par with the lengthy creature brawls in later films, it’s still something to saver, as it's a memorable showdown with the first original King Kong. All throughout the film, we see Kong battling creatures in an effort to keep Ann safe, and this was a short, yet stand out moment.

#9 King Kong versus Gorosaurus from “King Kong Escapes” 

While he may seem like just another T-Rex on the surface, Gorosaurus was actually a regular player in Japans giant monster series, and would even appear in the 1969 Godzilla movie titled “Destroy all Monsters”. Heck, that movie even features stock footage of Gorosaurus, which is lifted straight from “King Kong Escapes”. The battle between Kong and Gorosaurus is a delightfully cheesy rubber suited monster fight, and its actually kind of a treat to see Kong battle something else from the Godzilla franchise. Gorosaurus’s signature move is a drop-kick, which he repeatedly uses on Kong. There are also some amusing winks to the original “King Kong” movie, like a shot with the Blond girl in a tree branch, while the monsters battle in the background. Also, just like the original T-Rex, Gorosaurus gets his jaw snapped open, but this is a G rated death by comparison, as it features foam coming out the mouth as opposed to blood.

#8 King Kong versus the Giant Snake from 1976 “King Kong” 

While we don’t have any exciting Dinosaur encounters in this 70’s remake, it’ll have to compensate with another creature that slithers. It’s yet another goofy action highlight, and it accurses when Kong rescues the girl from a giant snake, which is a cheap looking puppet. While it’s an admittedly silly fight, it does contain some surprisingly violent creature action. Kong’s finishing move of ripping the snakes jaw open is about as bloody awesome as they get, and it’s just enough to make this brawl worthy of recognition on my countdown.

#7 Baby Kong vs the Giant Cave Bear from “Son of Kong” 

The 1933 sequel “Son of Kong” remains the only film in the franchise that doesn’t feature Kong himself, so his son will just have to fill in. All through the movie, we see the young Baby Kong battling various monsters in an effort to protect a group of treasure hunters. Some of the newer monsters in this film include a sea serpent, and several others. The most memorable monster battle of all is when Baby Kong finds himself clashing with a giant cave bear. Unlike the other reptiles, dinosaurs, and squids that Kong has battled, this bear is much closer to the regular animal world but enlarged, just like Kong himself. The two cover a lot of ground for a stop motion fight, and it’s a cool contrast of razor sharp claws against strong fists.

#6 King Kong versus the Triple T-Rex pack from 2005 “King Kong” 

This is one of the more modern Kong Battles, and would probably rank a little higher on most other lists of this sort. Personally, I have some issues reserved for this brawl. Echoing back to Kong’s original showdown with the T-Rex, the mighty ape now finds himself brawling with three T-Rex’s at once. It’s a case of too much going on, when the original was satisfying enough with just one T-Rex battling Kong. The effects and designs of these three T-Rex’s are also really off-putting. I’ll always look back fondly on the T-Rex from “Jurassic Park” as one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, as it genuinely felt like a real monster with size, wait and a frightening presence. The three in this film just look and feel like cartoon monsters, and their desire to eat Ann is just plain ridiculous. It actually gets to a point when a T-Rex is dangling in the air on some vines, but it’s still determined to get Ann in its mouth, like it’s the only possible meal it could ever get. With all that said, this is obviously still a noteworthy and mostly exciting creature battle from Kong’s motion picture line-up.

#5 King Kong versus the Giant Octopus from “King Kong vs Godzilla” 

This actually marked the very first King Kong movie I ever saw in my lifetime, and thus, this was the very first Kong battle I ever saw. As such Kong’s showdown with the Giant octopus may not seem like anything special on the surface, but it’s always been a memorable highlight for me. The giant Octopus was brought to life through a combination of stop-motion, and a real Octopus. Specking personally, I’ve always loved the concept of Giant Squid monsters, and seeing this thing rising from the depths to attack the island villagers evokes a sense of excitement that’s on par with the Giant Squid from “20 000 Leagues Under the Sea”. The creature effects during this attack would later be an influence for the animators of The Kraken in the 2006 film “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest”. The ensuing battle between Kong and the Octopus is yet another cheesy highlight and sets the tone for what we’ll be getting through the film.

#4 King Kong versus Robot Kong from “King Kong Escapes” 

To date, Robot Kong is the only original giant antagonist to battle Kong, and he even pre-dates Godzilla’s more famous evil robot counterpart Mechagodzilla by a good six years. Having a giant rival that mired Kong’s appearance was actually a credible idea, and I like how it’s utilized in the film. When Kong sees his robot duplicate for the first time, it sees the thing as one of his own, and even tries to be friends ... which obviously doesn’t work out. Just as the day seems won, Robot Kong appears on the scene, kidnaps the girl and forces Kong into a final battle to the death. While this rubber suited monster brawl isn’t nearly as amusing as Kong’s original battle with Godzilla, it’s still solid campy fun, and I really like the duality of both the new and familiar on display during this climax. We once again have a finale set on a tall tower, with a blond girl taken away by Kong, but this time we also have Kong coming to the girl’s rescue. It’s probably the only Kong sequel to feature a climax with two Kong’s battling over a girl while on top of a tall building.

#3 King Kong versus the Alfa Skull Crawler from “Kong: Skull Island” 

The Skull Crawlers are some of the most lethal and unique creatures to appear in the Kong franchise, and their giant alfa is a worthy foe for the mighty ape. The final showdown between Kong and the lead Skull Crawler is really fun to watch, and features all the cool stuff a giant monster fight has to offer. There’s an awesome un-edited shot following Kong as he fights the creature, while the camera orbits the action, which got me hyped. Also, seeing Kong launch a rusted boat propeller into the monsters back was great. It’s also a lengthy battle, and it concludes with the most epic creature death of the whole franchise. Kong puts his entire fist in the creature’s mouth, and rips his tongue right out. This might just be the most genuinely exciting and fun Kong vs monster fight of the whole series … but that doesn’t quite make it classic like the next two.

#2 King Kong versus the T-Rex from the original 1933 “King Kong” 

Back in 1925, there was a silent picture titled “The Lost World”, which featured stop motion Dinosaurs that were created by one Willis O’ Brien. The creature effects in that film were extraordinary accomplishments, but it’s here in “King Kong” where Willis O’ Brien's creature effects really shine. Just like Kong, all the Dinosaurs featured in the film are stop-motion, and every encounter with them is down-right thrilling. My favorite scene of all is Kong’s battle with the T-Rex. This was the first truly classic monster battle ever captured on film, and it still holds up as an exciting sequence, with a memorable finishing movie of Kong breaking its jaw. It may seem tame today, but back in 1933, this battle was on par with the excitement of watching the Hulk battle Thor. Now, ever sense the very first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton was found and assembled, it’s had a distinguished reputation as one of the most famous carnivores of all time. So, to see the legendary T-Rex back in his prime of fame, get bested by this giant ape, it really helped put the spot light on Kong as a force to be reckoned with.

#1 The East Versus the West from “King Kong vs Godzilla” 

Was there ever any doubt that taking the number one spot on my list would be the climactic showdown on the slopes of Mount Fuji between the world’s two most famous giant movie monsters. I can respect how a fight between two rubber suited monsters can come off as just plain stupid or boring to some viewers, but there is still a charm and appeal to the campy-ness of it that can entertain a certain audience. For me, I know it’s not quality entertainment, but I absolutely love it on the grounds of campy fun, and this final showdown between Godzilla and King Kong is about as goofy, yet as epic as they get. 

My favorite moment is actually at the very start of the fight, in which Kong is dropped in the mighty lizards path, he slides down the mountain slope like a kid on a bob-sled, and crashes right into Godzilla, which sends him rolling backward like a bolder. I really love seeing their distinct fighting styles on display, like Kong throwing boulders, which Godzilla reflects with his tail. The two actors in the monster suits pull off some credible stunts, although there are some amusing moments in which the two look like their trying to hug each other to death. There’s a sudden piece of stop motion added in for Godzilla to perform a drop-kick, which is great. Then there’s a hilarious establishing shot with both monsters fighting off in the distance, and it looks like a kid playing with his toy action figures. There’re also some brutal moments, like Kong getting his face smashed into a rock, and Godzilla getting a tree shoved down his throat. Now, Godzilla has the advantage that he can breathe fire, so the writers had to come up with new things for Kong to do in order to stand a chance. Thus, in this film, King Kong gains strength through lightning bolts, and can store the electricity in his fists. It’s a bit outlandish for a giant gorilla, but I’ll except it. Of course, the most iconic image of the whole fight is seeing the two monsters demolish a Pagoda that’s caught in-between them. It’s just a goofy, campy monster brawl, but it’s as classic as they get, and no other King Kong battle can top it … at least until the remake comes out next year.   

The End