It is strange then, the place this movie takes. It is not a coming of age film in the cultural narrative, like say Sandlot or Stand by Me. It is also not a “when we were kids” movie, reminiscing on what was. It is something else.
AMC recently showed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as part of a tribute series from in honor of Gene Wilder’s passing. And it made me have thoughts. These are those thoughts.
I’ve only seen Willy Wonka twice in my life, as far as I am aware. Once when I was a child, very young, too young. And once when I was in high school. And even then, I think I was too young to really appreciate it. It wasn’t till this watch through, as an adult (sorta) that I was able to really understand what I was watching. And I think thats the film’s intention.
Over the years, Willy Wonka has become part of our cultural zeitgeist, a standard film that all children must have seen, joining the ranks of Wizard of Oz, The Princess Bride, Home Alone, etc. Regardless of the truth of that statement, it is expected that as children, you have seen those films. But Wonka, Princess Bride, and films like them are outliers; wolves in children’s movies clothing. I am not convinced that Willy Wonka is for children. It is easy to mistake it for one; bright colors, musical numbers, a large cast of children, candy, and some lesson-imparting-possibly racist-orange folks. But, like its titular character, this whimsical nature is a mask.
Or rather, the fun nature of the film is a half truth, a shared truth. Wonka is both an unparalleled comedy force, with a gleam in his eye and a kind and warm smile, and a desperately tortured soul, so burdened by time and age and cynicism that his only solace is in the single kind act of a child. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is either a movie about a poor young boy who gets the change of a lifetime to tour the factory of the great and mysterious Wonka, or it’s the story of an impoverished child who is swept into the world of corporate espionage and the machinations of a desperate man, clinging to hope, and perhaps life. Maybe it is both. Maybe it is not either or.
In any case, Gene Wilder perfectly captures this dichotomy. His character is so wonderfully sad, so weightlessly funny, it feels wrong to call it an act. It feels as though we have had the chance to peer into the soul of this character, or perhaps, the actor himself. As a child, I could not have understood this. I was focused on the edible chocolate mushrooms, the flying fizzy drink, the teleporting Wonka vision. I was terrified of the scarred Slughorn, of the furious end-of-movie Wonka. But as an adult, this changes. My perspective shifted. Charlie used to be my entry into the story, the character with whom I am supposed to connect. I am supposed to wonder at the imagination room, feel joy as he his given chocolate, be afraid for him as Wonka spits furiously as Grandpa Joe. Yet, as I sat there, I missed those emotions. They were past. In its place, I was entranced with the sadness of the lyrics of Wonka’s “Pure Imagination,” I felt the utter despair and disappointment of a man who had truly lost all faith and hope when Wonka outbursts before the final scene. And when Grandpa Joe gives Charlie the chocolate that he buys with his tobacco money, as he gets out of bed gleefully to go with him to the factory…I cannot help but think of my own grandfather, the joyous look on his face and in his eye (literally, just the one) when his grandchildren come around. I am not happy because Charlie got Grandpa Joe out of bed; I am happy for Joe, that he spends what is likely his closing with his grandson, seeing things he could never dream of.
It is strange then, the place this movie takes. It is not a coming of age film in the cultural narrative, like say Sandlot or Stand by Me. It is also not a “when we were kids” movie, reminiscing on what was. It is something else. It is a movie that is enjoyed completely differently by both intended audiences. It is a fantasy, the wonders of what adulthood and mystery have to offer children. It is a reconciliation story, a plea to reconnect, to shed the weight of cynicism and embrace the wondrousness that can be childhood for adults. It is incomparably joyful and sad. And no one captured that quite like the candy man himself. May you rest in peace, Mr. Wilder. You were a music maker, and a dreamer of dreams.