Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, absolutely hated the first adaptation of his book (I doubt he’d have liked the second better). Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory certainly departs from Dahl’s novel, but in a rare case of the movie creating its own bit of magic that does nothing to take away from a classic novel. Why does Willy Wonka work? What is it about a top-hatted, purple clad reclusive chocolate maker that has captured the minds of children and adults since its release in 1971? I think the answer is: Gene Wilder, the genius comic actor who passed away yesterday at the age of 83.
Wilder’s Wonka isn’t cutesy or necessarily even kid-friendly. He’s probably barking mad, but he’s utterly unlike any other character you’ve ever seen. He’s an inventor, an eternal child, a burdened old man, and a soul who wandered between reality and imagination effortlessly. The scene most identified with the film is the beautiful “Pure Imagination” number that Wonka sings as his unwitting candidates to succeed him explore his Chocolate Room. It’s a wonderful song, but the whimsy and playfulness with which Wonka explores his own creation during the number shows that he’s still in awe of the magic of the place. Gene Wilder was a perfect choice to play Wonka. Wilder had an inherent mischievous streak and his every action promised a storehouse of barely contained madness of the most hysterical order. Wonka is one of the most nuanced and complex characters ever created for the screen, and that children today still get swept away into his factory ensures that Wilder’s legacy will live on.
4 thoughts on “My Favorite Scene: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) “Pure Imagination””
‘Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three’. Sad to here about Wilder’s passing, he was fantastic as Willy Wonka.
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I always thought of Willy Wonka as the benevolent mirror image of Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. For one thing, Wonka can do whatever he wants in his isolated fiefdom, populated by strange natives. There is a darkness to the proceedings, as Wonka appears for all the world to be murdering four children (and if, at the end of the movie, Wonka didn’t tell Charlie that the other four kids were going to be OK… if that one line were left out… the movie would be way too disturbing. As it stands, we trust that Wonka is not evil, because Wilder is so lovable).
At the end of the day, Kurtz wanted to be killed by Willard. He wanted his own suffering to end. In Willy Wonka, the world-weary Wonka is merely looking for a replacement. Both films are quests down a river (chocolate or otherwise) and the protagonist (Willard, Charlie) comes to relate to a madman in the end. Brando overacted; Wilder was a convincing crazy person precisely because that part of his performance was so subtle.
I am devastated by the news of Wilder’s passing. All you have to do is look at his filmography to know what kind of person he was. No mean-spirited roles in sight. I know he had Alzheimer’s and I know he’s with Gilda now, but the world is a colder place than it was two days ago.
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This one really hit me. The range of emotion he does just in Wonka is astounding. It doesn’t go off the rails like a Johnny Depp tranwreck – Wilder HATED Burton’s adaptation btw). He manages to be old, young, spry, weary, sly, menacing, warm, cold, and a dozen other things that would have overwhelmed any other actor, but he makes it look effortless. I remember the first time I saw it and he made his entrance hobbling on his cane and then lept into a summersault and he had me. I loved this man. I think, maybe, beause he was the first adult I saw as a child who retained his child-like heart.