'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' is the scariest children's movie ever made. One can only imagine the horrified faces of parents in 1971 who took their children to see what they though would be just another G-rated tale of wonder and instead go the first slasher flick for the preteen set. Watch as five unsuspecting contest winners get picked off one by one, all set to the beat of toe-tapping tunes like "Pure Imagination." That 'Wonka's candy-colored wonderland ultimately resembles not so much a magical world of whimsy but a makeshift purgatory only adds to the demented fun. Never has a family entertainment been this subversive and sublime.
Based on the much-beloved 1964 novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl, the retitled 'Willy Wonka' was a box office bust upon first release but quickly became a perennial favorite via endless television airings. Dahl's dark satire has been cited as a major influence on everyone form Tim Burton (who remade the film himself in 2005 as 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory') to shock rocker Marilyn Manson, and Gene Wilder's living embodiment of Wonka has become iconic. A sort of dark doppelganger to Santa Claus, he relishes in his grim task of deciding who's been naughty and who's been nice. But with the help of his demented band of Oompa-Loompas, Wonka's hidden agenda will be made clear by journey's end. Each of the handpicked five has a lesson to learn, but not all children, when put to the test, will rise to the challenge.
Far more than even Burton's big-budget update, the original 'Willy Wonka' distills the essence of a Grimm's fairy to the purest form ever seen onscreen. The film is a visual and aural delight, its fantastic visuals masking a deeper, darker sensibility. Harper Goff's imaginative designs for Wonka's factory are colorful, surreal masterpieces of ingenuity and invention (remember the candy-flavored wallpaper, or Wonka's office, where everything is cut in half?), and we breathlessly await the wonders to come around every corner. Rarely has a film's production design created a suspense of its own, just be simply being. Also memorable are the songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, which are infused with a truly glorious child-like wonder, from the signature "Candy Man" and "Pure Imagination" to the creepy, nursery rhyme-like dirges of the Oompa-Loompas.
But what galvanizes the film is Wilder, who delivers one of his finest performances as the mischievous and seemingly sadistic Wonka. Bittersweet, not saccharine, he smartly avoids playing Wonka as typical Disneyesque father figure (a problem Burton's remake forgot) but instead as an all-knowing, ultimately benevolent guardian angel. Wilder understands, like Dahl, that although we may want life to always be as sweet as an Everlasting Gobstopper, eventually the pure innocence of youth must give way to the darker realities of adulthood. And that the gift of a golden ticket can be dangerous in the hands of the greedy, the lazy, the selfish and the impatient.
Warner Home Video originally released 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' on DVD back in 1997 with rather mediocre video, then followed that up with the announcement in 2001 of a 30th Anniversary Edition -- in full frame only. The news quickly drew ire from DVD enthusiasts on the Internet, who wanted a deluxe 'Wonka' in widescreen. The backlash became so fierce that a virtual petition amassed thousands of signatures in a mere few days. Warner soon relented, and Mr. Wonka himself would have been proud.
This new HD DVD version appears to have been minted from that same 2001 master (even the bits of dust and dirt match exactly), so the source material is technically dated. Despite that, and though perhaps not a frame-for-frame restoration on the level of Warner's top-tier titles like 'Citizen Kane,' 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Singin' in the Rain,' this 1080p/VC-1 transfer of 'Willy Wonka' still looks good enough to lick. Colors are as sweet as cotton candy, and certainly improved over the standard-def release. Even the lushest reds, purples and greens free from bleeding and chroma noise. Detail is also raised up a notch, with Harper Goff's immense sets revealing finer details even in long shots, while even the smallest hairs on the purple pelt of Willy Wonka's coat are readily apparent.
However, there is some inconsistency in softness throughout the transfer, with some shots appearing a bit less detailed than others. Dirt and print defects are still present, especially any sequence involving an optical effect (the all-white walls during the Mike TeeVee segment are hit particularly hard). Blacks and contrast also waver just a little, again during effects sequences, with isolated moments washed out or flat. But these are minor quibbles for a film now enjoying its 35th anniversary, and Willy Wonka looks just dandy in high def.
Warner presents 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 (encoded at 640kbps), but quite frankly the boost matters little. Even the 2001 remaster, as nice as it was, could do little for a film this front heavy.
The majority of 'Willy Wonka' is directed to the front three channels. Dialogue is nicely reproduced for a film of this vintage, and gone is all the crackling and shrill high-end that marred the first DVD and the old videotape releases. The film's music score, too, is richer, with far more spacious mid-range and some nice stereo effects present on vocals and specific instruments. Low bass is still pretty anemic, however. Surround use is also lacking, and save for the vary rare discrete effect there is little sonic atmosphere to enjoy. There is certainly no mistaking this for a modern mix, but 'Willy Wonka' is perfectly listenable nonetheless.
'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' has always appealed to adults as much as, if not more than, children, a fact which Warner finally understood when it re-released the film in a 30th Anniversary Edition DVD back in 2001. That release boasted a nice assortment of tasty treats, which were largely free of the inane fluff that usually mars family titles on disc. And all have survived the journey to HD DVD.
Reunited for a group audio commentary are all five of the film's golden ticket winners: Peter Ostrum (Charlie Bucket), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregard), Paris Themmen (Mike TeeVee) and Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop). Their reunion is a real treat, as much a chance to marvel at the passage of time as to revel in the amusing anecdotes shared by all. All five also join in for the 30-minute documentary "Pure Imagination," along with director Mel Stuart, producer Donald P. Wolper and Gene Wilder. Recounted is the story of how the film was largely dismissed upon its original theatrical release, but has since become a part of the cultural vernacular. A smattering of never-before-seen footage also includes a few surprises, including the late Anthony Newley unveiling the song "Pure Imagination" to Wolper, and a rare peek at the construction of the Goff's now-classic factory sets. Plus it's totally wild to see the Wonka kids all grown up. This one is a must for nostalgia-holics.
'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' is a classic that needs no introduction. Warner has put together a tasty HD DVD, with a luscious transfer, a perfectly respectable soundtrack and the same extras as the standard DVD release. No, nothing here pushes the boundaries of the format or offers much that is new, but 'Willy Wonka' is never less than a tasty treat.