Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Film | Opinion

Hear Me Out: 50 years later and 'Willy Wonka' is a masterpiece


“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dream.”

As rivers of powdered cocoa flow like a waterfall and glistening globs of melted chocolate cover sticks of finely cut wafer, Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory slides into action, exciting the pupils and saliva ducts of children worldwide. Without the bleak industrial reality of an actual chocolate factory, here sweets are created in a strange, dreamlike space of darkness in which cocoa exists, and is seemingly created out of the mystery of the nether. A careful, orchestral score fuels the footage of this heavenly production line and sparks an ethereal quality which the film elicits throughout, creating not a fleeting feeling of mystery, but a pertinent frisson of childlike wonder. 

Whilst visiting the titular chocolate factory of master candy-creator Willy Wonka is of course the pinnacle of the film’s narrative, the key to the film’s everlasting endurance is in its dedication to making everything outside the factory seem equally extraordinary. Life in this strange, unnamed town is weird and frankly spooky, lorded over by the zombified existence of their famous chocolate factory, whilst the rest of the city shines in quant European glory. Filmed in Munich, despite its British/American cast members, life under the shadow of Wonka’s factory feels strange, quaint and rather beautiful, as you become enveloped by the town’s fantastical wonder and mystery. 

When word comes out that Willy Wonka has hidden five golden tickets in five separate chocolate bars hidden worldwide, suddenly society becomes a hotbed of excitement. To see inside the fantastical factory responsible for the production of Wonka Bars and Whipple Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight is after a universal dream, shared not only by children but adults and rich businessmen too. “We’re about to the greatest miracle of the machine age,” one inventor announces as he reveals his machine able to “tell the precise location of the three remaining golden tickets” only for the crude creation to spit out the response, “I won’t tell, that would be cheating”. 

Before the pearly gates of the factory have been eased open, already the idea of walking into the factory feels special, a wondrous experience taken only by the lucky few. It’s all down to this whirlwind of excitement created by screenwriter Roald Dahl, the author of the original children’s story, who gives his audience a comprehensive lesson in creativity. Discovering the secret rooms, corridors and quirky secrets of Wonka’s factory is the easy part, with the sweet mysteries of the strange dream factory elicited by the captivating performance of Gene Wilder, portraying a man halfway between master and maniac. 

Coming up with the iconic entrance for the maverick inventor, in which Wonka stumbles down a red carpet before falling over and finishing in a somersault, Wilder noted that he wished that “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth”. It’s a genius decision that well establishes Wilder’s character, and makes him a figure of great fear and intrigue, typified by the infamous nightmarish tunnel sequence in which Willy Wonka appears to have a nervous breakdown in front of five children and their guardians. Despite the vivid sweetness of the chocolate factory, Wonka’s unstable identity suggests that perhaps genius is born from a complicated mix of sadness, madness and a sprinkling of eclectic headwear. 

Parts of Wonka’s vast workshop after all feel like they could be the erratic creations of a man going through a midlife crisis, with the inventing room appearing like a factory for home-brew, littered with metal troughs with large colourful dust sheets covering ‘valuable items’. Though, this is also where the film excels, giving the impression that everything you could see could in fact be created. 

This wasn’t the magical CGI kingdom created by Tim Burton, that suggested such a reality was impossible to access, Mel Stuart’s chocolate factory is one crammed with fun and creativity, feeling like a tangible place formed from wild imagination. Delving into the imagination and dreams that come with the creation of an edible theme park, Stuart creates something of a primary school production, filled with charm, wonder and a childlike sense of pure fun. 

“So shines a good deed In a weary world”