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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Year: 1971
Studio: Paramount
Director: Mel Stuart
Writer: Roald Dahl
Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Jack Albertson

I've never read the Roald Dahl story and Tim Burton's remake can certainly be left written out of the historical record without causing any trouble, but Mel Stuart's definitive version achieved something very special that's not so obvious until you're grown up and look back on it. Sure, it's a kids film, but in the same way as the work of The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Struwwelpeter – gruesome, psychologically disturbing and with a dark streak right through the heart of the colours, movement, song and dance.

I don't remember the canal boat ride affecting me adversely – as kids we all flinched and said 'ew' at the sight of the chicken being beheaded with a cleaver and the giant centipede crawling across a prone face, but the scene is worthy of the work of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and the acid-trip visuals of many directors in the 70s put together.

Plus there's Wonka himself, played by Wilder with a seemingly childlike innocence but a shrewd underlying knowledge and control of everything around him. What other film could get away with the (virtual) murder of several children to make its point? Even in the last scene when Wonka turns into an impatient, roaring fiend in his final test of Charlie's (Ostrum) decency, I distinctly remember being quite scared of him.

Like everyone my age I watched it because of the appeal of adventure, glitz and pizzazz – a mood given full flight in the chocolate river and candy garden sequence. It's telling that the kids and their families go from there to the river boat ride, speeding down a dark tunnel with a driver that seems to have lost his mind ('There's no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going') leading them who knows where. Was it Dahl's (or Stuart's) imagining of Adam and Eve, cast out of Eden after original sin?

And we still remember Charlie and Grandpa Joe (Albertson) floating upwards in the bubble room, Veruca blowing up into a grape lolly and the cheery but snide songs the Oompa Loompas sing upon every child's demise, no matter what subtexts about behaviour and decency Dahl was trying to smuggle in.

Those born before about 1990 can stop reading now – if you're older, this film should be a staple of your childhood film-watching memories and you don't need me to tell you the plot. A Howard Hughes-like recluse (Wilder) who's rarely seen in public oversees production of Wonka chocolates and candy in an enigmatic factory. One day he announces he'll hide five golden tickets in Wonka chocolates somewhere in the world, and the discoverers will win a tour of the famous, secret factory.

Charlie is one of the lucky winners, taking his beloved Grandpa Joe with him and meeting the four other kids and their various guardians also taking the tour. After a grand entrance seldom bettered in cinema, Wonka welcomes them inside a land of industrial magic, a netherworld that became the template for factories that produced the stuff we love for a generation of kids.

Moving from one production sector to another, the kids and their various sins (gluttony, spoiled, disobedience, etc) see them removed from the group according in a series of inventive mistreatments by various machinery until there's only Charlie and Grandpa left, whereupon Wonka reveals his true agenda.

You'll remember it as magical, but it's also allegorical, scary and multi-layered. Like Oz, Narnia and Middle Earth, it's a place to comment decisively on the state of the world wrapped up in a big, colourful bow to trick the adults. Interestingly, Dahl himself disliked the idea so much he forbade producers from using material from the sequel (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator) in the film.

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