I have no idea how old I was when I first saw Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Like a lot of childhood classics — particularly the fairy tales — I feel like I came into this world having already seen it, and every subsequent viewing was simply a refresher.
None of that meant that the story lost any of its inherent power. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is as resilient a movie as has been committed to film, and its power to instill delight and something just this side of disturbing is unmatched. And all its charms and oddities are summed up in Gene Wilder’s exquisite, legendary performance. I was never comfortable with it, and I wasn’t supposed to be. It was an uncomfortable performance that left you unsure of whether Wonka was the messiah of the confectionary world or its devil. Nobody else could have pulled this off with Wilder’s ease.
To at least three generations of comedy nerds, Wilder, who passed away on Monday, would be known for his work with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor. Deservedly so too, because Wilder was so, so funny. If you’ve never seen his reaction to a man’s confession of love to a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex sketch film, you’ve missed one of the great awkward pauses in cinematic history.
But to the casual filmgoer, Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka, and his performance was perfect. It was a magnetic display of magnificently nuanced brilliance, the likes of which has almost no compare in kid’s movies. Wilder conveyed a tremendous naturalness with his own quirks, simultaneously ambivalent to what was happening around him and deeply invested. He could be kindly as a lamb and then explode into a wild energy — part Santa Clause, part Robin Williams, part slinky. It is a tour-de-force of bewildering theatrics.
There are probably three moments in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that have become legendary: The horrifying tunnel scene; “You lose! Good day, sir!”; And Wonka’s shuffling acrobatic introduction. (You could also include: “We are the music makers and the dreamers of dreams,” but that line has become more famous as a yearbook quote than Wilder’s own delivery. Alas.)
All three of these moments stick with you because they’re complicated. As Wonka, Gene Wilder is difficult to pin down. We’re seeing him through the eyes of Charlie Bucket, who trusts Wonka for reasons that are not entirely clear. Indeed, Wonka does not seem terribly trustworthy throughout, and while his chocolate factory is a sensory paradise, its moral code is as strict as a convent’s — albeit with more inventive disciplinary measures.
Willy Wonka isn’t just weird. He’s unsettling. He keeps his collection of guests off balance with his expectations. There are plain allusions to Wonka as a god, his chocolate factory as an Edenic paradise and Charlie and Co. being the Adams and Eves of this new world, innocent and susceptible to temptation. Wonka’s rules about what should and should not be eaten seem arbitrary and incidental, but is Wonka instructing Violet to avoid the Three Course Dinner Chewing Gum any odder than God telling Adam and Eve to avoid the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?
All this makes Charlie’s devotion to Wonka difficult to fathom, as the movie goes to great lengths to show just how unpredictable Wonka’s rules can be. As the story progresses, the audience expectation would be for Wonka to snap into focus, but instead, Wilder doubles down on Wonka’s unique dimensions. Wilder’s trick was to make Wonka himself a good person, no matter how unusual his bag of tricks. He might be gentle and paternalistic in one moment, a strict authoritarian in the next — and even fly into the occasional fit of rage — but it was always in response to a violation of his expectations. The trouble with Violet Beauregarde, Augustus Gloop and the rest is that they keep expecting Wonka to conform to their own whims. Even Grandpa Joe, at the end, accuses Wonka of being a monster for the simple crime of being angry his laws were broken. Charlie alone understands how to engage Wonka on his own terms. To bring our religious analogy full circle, you might say Charlie finds salvation by walking the straight and narrow. A little dangerous, sure, but preferable to turning into a giant blueberry.
Compare this to some lesser Roald Dahl adaptations, the most obvious of which is Tim Burton’s 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake. Johnny Depp took over the starring duties of course, and his twitchy stylings along with Burton’s madcap vision lent him an appreciably idiosyncratic nerviness. The performance’s Achilles’ heel was how desperate Depp and Burton were to find a narrative for Wonka’s own weirdness that would make sense to viewers. Depp’s Wonka did snap into focus. In their script, Willy Wonka was a victim of a strict household, and his various tics and eccentricities were all a reaction to an overbearing father. This says much more about Tim Burton than it does about Willy Wonka.
In the end of that movie, it’s Depp’s Wonka that needs to find redemption, and it’s Charlie who helps him become a better person. Wonka has to learn how to conform to society instead of Charlie learning the lessons of Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It’s a baffling decision on the part of the scriptwriters that completely neuters the original film’s more complex morals.
Or to take a more recent example, Steven Spielberg’s recent crack at The BFG was imaginative and beautiful to behold, but defanged the original story’s inherent sense of danger. In the original book, our villains Childchewer, Meatdripper, Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler live up to their names as visceral threats to make young readers’ blood run cold. In Spielberg’s vision, they’re bumbling oafs. The danger is sapped from the narrative.
Gene Wilder made his performance as dangerous as Dahl’s original vision allowed, and it’s the performance upon which Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory rests. According to legend, Wilder accepted the role on the condition that he’d be allowed to do the now-famous introductory somersault. He told Stuart that he wanted to enter like that “because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
As Wonka, Wilder kept audiences on their toes. That performance still does. Its power lays in Wilder’s ability to convey an inner mystery that was far more grounded than it appeared at first blush. By introducing an element of real danger into a children’s movie — a danger that never quite resolves — Wonka depicted a far more real vision of the world than other, sunnier depictions of authority figures. Here was someone whose ways were confusing and unknowable, even to the other grownups in the room. It was scary.
And it was an exceptionally real experience. What child isn’t a little bit afraid of the people they love most?