Gabe Rodríguez’s review published on Letterboxd:
“The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”
Few films in history have ever managed to be as simultaneously beloved and strangely depraved as this one. Roald Dahl's novel was already one of his stranger ones to begin with, and this film dials it up even further.
The story is the classic fairy-tale of poor Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum, who never appeared in another film), who lives in such exaggerated poverty that all four of his grandparents must sleep in the same bed. Eventually he wins the dream of a lifetime: a golden ticket to visit the Wonka Chocolate Factory. He is accompanied by Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) and four other bratty kids to meet the reclusive owner...and inside the factory, we enter a world of fantasy, consisting of moments of both extreme whimsy and extreme darkness, where nightmares runs in tandem with sweet dreams.
The production design of the movie is amazing. So are its costumes and the look of the Oompa Loompas and their moralistic songs. So are all the songs for that matter (except for "Cheer Up, Charlie," which everyone always skips over).
The most infamous scene in the movie is the trippy boat ride ("There is no Earthly way of knowing/Which direction we are going..."). I always wondered why this scene was even in the movie, and to this day, I don't think there's a single person who has ever been able to come up with an answer. But here's the really crazy part: the exact same scene is in Dahl's book, with Wonka's strange poem being taken verbatim. If nothing else, this scene deserves credit simply because of how much the filmmakers commit to it, willing to go as freaky as they can.
At the center of the film is Gene Wilder in a performance that is absolutely iconic and the film truly wouldn't work without him. Wilder's take on Wonka is erratic, morally ambiguous, sarcastic, pretentious, endearing, sweet, insane. He doesn't appear until almost halfway into the film, and from that point on he steals all our attention, being a character we're never quite sure if we can trust. And his performance during the boat ride was enough to convince everyone he was insane.
One observation I've always had: three of the four bratty kids have such great names: Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and Violet Beauregarde. These feel like such fairy-tale names that describe what brats they are, adding to the heightened reality of this world. So I've always found it disappointing that the fourth kid has such an unimaginative name as Mike Teavee. He has the most boring first name in the world, and then a last name that just tells you what he's obsessed with. MikeTV sounds like a cable network.
Speaking of which, as much as everyone always praises the bratty kids, no one ever mentions how great the actors playing the parents are. The parents are all just as obnoxious and caricaturist as their children and they start being rude to Wonka almost as soon as the tour starts. Mr. Salt, Mr. Beauregarde, and Mrs. Teavee are funny characters and lead to some of the funniest lines.
There was a rumor going around when I was in high school about how the movie was a metaphor for Satanism. This was in the late '90's when in general there was a craze for talking about adult content that was hidden in children's films (more infamously the priest with an erection in THE LITTLE MERMAID or the word "sex" being spelled in the wind in THE LION KING).
In the case of WILLY WONKA, the Satanic elements people supposedly claimed they saw were:
1) Wonka himself physically resembles a Devil-like figure,
2) His underworld contains a "Garden of Eden" where he tempts those who enter,
3) The Oompa Loompas also look kind of demonic and are his minions,
4) A contract is given prominent stature before entering, as if Wonka wants everyone to sign away their soul,
5) Wonka randomly mentions "The fires of Hell are blowing," during a boat-ride that is by itself very hellish,
6) Wonka is at one point referred to as "an inhuman monster,"
7) Most notably of all, the four bratty kids all seem to represent one of the seven deadly sins: Augustus is gluttony, Veruca is greed, Mike is sloth, and Violet is...lust for gum? Okay, that last one is pushing it a bit. Maybe she represents pride?
WILLY WONKA is a film full of iconography, leaving a long, lasting impact on many young viewers across the world. Let it charm you; let it cast its bizarre spell on you!