Part of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s greatest successes is the plotting–how top-billed Gene Wilder doesn’t show up until almost halfway into the film–but it’s also one of the film’s problems. It needs another five or ten minutes with Wilder; probably not at the very end, but somewhere before it. There’s so much going on, director Stuart and writer Roald Dahl (adapting his novel) sort of lose track of everything.
There’s a lot creativity, both in the writing and the direction, to the narrative–Stuart juxtaposes various television reports about Wilder’s Willy Wonka offering five passes to his chocolate factory against young Peter Ostrum’s wishes to find one. It’s beautifully executed, thanks to great acting, Arthur Ibbetson’s photography, Stuart’s direction and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s music. Not all of the songs are great, but they’re all good enough and some of them are outstanding. Ostrum gives a fine, appealing performance; Stuart tends to put him opposite rather strong performers. Jack Albertson is great as his grandfather, Diana Sowle’s good as his mom. Bit players Aubrey Woods and David Battley are also quite good.
The second half of the film, in addition to bringing Wilder into the story proper, also has all the other “golden ticket” winners. Great obnoxious children–particularly Julie Dawn Cole and Denise Nickerson–and great obnoxious parents–Leonard Stone and Roy Kinnear standout. Ostrum gets somewhat lost in the shuffle. When he and Albertson do get a scene to themselves, it’s at a point where the film needs more Wilder, not less.
As for Wilder, he’s phenomenal. He overcomplicates the role to fantastic result, going light and dark, introverted, extroverted. He’s always doing something wonderful (and why the heck didn’t Wilder do more singing roles?). While Stuart, Dahl and Ibbetson create a lot of the film’s gently tragic magic in the first half–along with Ostrum and Albertson, of course–it’s Wilder who introduces that element in the second half. Everyone else is way too busy with all the special effects and just managing the eleven principal characters.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory achieves a great many successes. It doesn’t quite get where it’s trying to go, but thanks to Wilder, Stuart, Dahl and Ostrum, it does get somewhere very special.
Directed by Mel Stuart; screenplay by Roald Dahl, based on his novel; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by David Saxon; music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley; produced by Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Peter Ostrum (Charlie), Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka), Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe), Diana Sowle (Mrs. Bucket), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Roy Kinnear (Mr. Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), Leonard Stone (Mr. Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee), Nora Denney (Mrs. Teevee), Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), Ursula Reit (Mrs. Gloop), Aubrey Woods (Bill), David Battley (Mr. Turkentine) and Günter Meisner (Mr. Slugworth).