[box cover]

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Gene Wilder, Peter Ostrum, Denise Nickerson,
Paris Themmen, Jack Albertson, Julie Dawn Cole,
and Michael Bollner

Written by Roald Dahl, David Seltzer (uncredited)
Directed by Mel Stuart


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Review by Betsy Bozdech                    


"There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination."

— Willy Wonka


Lest you doubt the potential of grass-roots consumer campaigns, consider the tale of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The dark, delectable children's fantasy was originally released on DVD by Warner Home Video in September 1997 with both letterbox and full-frame transfers, but no supplements. However, when the time came to release a "special edition" in late 2001, the movie was announced to be — horror of horrors — a full-screen transfer and nothing more. Fans cried foul, putting up such a fuss over wanting the movie in its original widescreen aspect ratio that Warner eventually gave in. Hence, this third DVD edition of the film — which, to its credit, does do director Mel Stuart's adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book proud. Every pixel in the matted widescreen picture is sharp and clear, and the colors — particularly in the fabulous, candy-packed chocolate room — look good enough to eat.

*          *          *

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Widescreen or full, Willy Wonka wouldn't have prompted such strong feelings if it wasn't such a beloved favorite. Thanks to Dahl's sharp, faithful-to-the-book script, the 1971 film has simultaneously delighted and terrified children for more than 30 years now. Who among us hasn't identified with Charlie (Peter Ostrum), the sweet, generous boy who longs to find one of the five golden tickets that will win his admission into the mysterious Wonka Chocolate Factory? Who hasn't raised a worried eyebrow or two at Gene Wilder's antics as the puckish, enigmatic Willy Wonka? The movie works so well because it brings Dahl's twisted humor to the screen nearly intact; even the world of a candy factory isn't all sweetness and light, and Dahl knows that. Indeed, it's that quirky, unique take on children's fantasy that's missing from many recent kids' movies. Humor accompanied by a little menace is much more interesting — and engaging — than catchphrase-ready one-liners.

Willy Wonka's pacing is dead-on, too; the movie strings us along for the better part of an hour before actually taking us through the factory gates, building our anticipation and introducing us to the five children lucky enough to procure the sought-after golden tickets tucked away inside bars of Wonka chocolate. There's Charlie, the poor, angelic hero, who lives with his mother and grandparents in the same somewhere-in-Europe town as the factory; Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), a spoiled English brat who wants everything "now!"; frank, gum-chewing American Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson); boob-tube addict Mike Teavee (Paris Themmen); and overfed German dumpling Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner). Accompanied by their parents (or, in Charlie's case, his delightful Grandpa Joe, played by Jack Albertson), the chosen five set out on a tour of Wonka's sugary, mystery-shrouded realm, delighting in the fantastic surroundings and quickly finding out that there's much more to Wonka — and his factory — than meets the eye.

One by one the children fall victim to their worst faults: Greedy Augustus tumbles into the chocolate river and gets sucked up a pneumatic tube; gum-crazy Violet ignores Wonka's warnings and tries some experimental Bubblicious that turns her into a giant blueberry; Mike ends up as pixilated as his favorite TV characters; and, of course, self-centered, demanding Veruca goes after a golden-egg-laying goose and is found wanting, plummeting away through a trap door to goodness knows where. Even Charlie and Grandpa Joe find it hard to deny the temptation of Wonka's extra-fizzy soda (or, for that matter, the opportunity to swipe an Everlasting Gobstopper and turn it over to Wonka's candy-making nemesis, Ansel Slugworth). This being a children's movie based on a children's book, the moral isn't hard to spot — selfishness gets you nowhere, and honesty, generosity, and trustworthiness can win you your heart's desire — but getting there is so much fun that it doesn't matter.

The film is fairly bursting with creativity and imagination, both delightful (the catchy songs, the chocolate room, the orange, rhyming Oompa Loompa factory workers) and demented (the freak-out boat ride). It all comes together thanks to Wilder's loopy, inspired work as Wonka; no one else could have embodied the fey peculiarity of Dahl's candy man as perfectly as the erstwhile Dr. Frankenshteeen does (talks of a remake starring Robin Williams, Nicolas Cage, or Jim Carrey are enough to make you want to follow Veruca down that egg chute). From his unexpectedly agile entrance to his casual dismissal of the events that befall the children, Wilder's Wonka is completely, wonderfully unpredictable; he keeps you guessing throughout the movie. With his career-defining performance and Harper Goff's eye-popping art direction and sets, it's no wonder Willy Wonka still earns hordes of candy-loving fans.

*          *          *

Fans old and new will love Warner's Willy Wonka DVD. As mentioned, the 1.85:1 restored transfer is as bright and colorful as the candy room. And the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English) makes the most of the Oompa Loompas' cryptic chants, as well as favorites like "Pure Imagination" and "The Candy Man" (which became the film's breakout hit after Sammy Davis Jr. adopted it and made it a classic). Other audio options include French, Spanish, and Portuguese mono tracks, plus English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.

The colorful menus lead to a relative wealth of special features. The basics include a photo gallery with 18 still pictures (use your "skip" button to move ahead if you don't want to wait for the slide show to switch to the next picture automatically); the original, fairly murky theatrical trailer; and cast and crew credits (with links to interesting "stats" cards for each major character). Also take some time to enjoy the four sing-along Wonka songs ("I've Got a Golden Ticket," "Pure Imagination," "I Want It Now," and "Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do"), an original four-minute featurette from 1971, the new "Pure Imagination: The Story of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory documentary, and the full-length commentary track, which reunites all five of the "Wonka kids." (All of these features are available on the full-frame Willy Wonka: Special Edition DVD as well.)

These last two are definitely the jewels of the DVD's extras collection. As with the track on Warner's The Goonies disc, the reunion commentary will delight fans who've loved Willy Wonka since they were kids — the five actors watched the movie together for the first time in 30 years while recording the track, and it's fun to listen to their in-jokes and reminisces. Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, and Denise Nickerson do most of the talking, giggling about on-set crushes (Cole and Nickerson bickered over Peter Ostrum) and remembering what it was like to see the big candy room set for the first time (in order to get their genuine reactions, director Stuart didn't let them see it until it was time to film their entrance). Themmen notes that original labels from the film's Wonka bar props can fetch a pretty penny on eBay, and Ostrum scores a group chuckle when he pipes up to say that "I have to laugh at my hair in this film." (Good call, Pete.) The commentary doesn't exactly offer many insights on filmmaking, but it's a lot more interesting than many of the ones on other DVDs that do.

Once you've listened to all the "kids" talk and share stories, you'll be dying to see what they look like and hear what their lives are like now. For that, turn to "Pure Imagination." The 30-minute documentary, while pretty standard in its talking-head format, is filled with more insights and stories about making the movie, plus interviews with Ostrum (who's a vet in upstate New York) and the rest of the gang. One particularly interesting anecdote comes from producer David L. Wolper, who explains how the movie ended up being called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory instead of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like Dahl's book. Turns out the Quaker company was looking to launch a new chocolate bar, so they gave Stuart and Wolper the money to make the movie in exchange for a marketing deal: They'd call their new candy Wonka bars if the filmmakers agreed to put the name "Wonka" in the movie's title. Ahh, synergy. All in all, it's a great little featurette — you may realize just how much time as passed since 1971 when you see the "kids" all grown up and looking like average Joes, but it's worth the shock.

— Betsy Bozdech



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