Monday, November 17, 2014

Favorite Films: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"

Oh, they try. Do they try.

These movies made by jaded, embittered, downright hostile adults to appeal to innocent, still-developing, infinitely impressionable children try to create a sense of values that can help shape a future society, and maybe entertain the tykes a little in the process.

So, we get movies about kids killing kids for sport; we get movies about children who learn early in life that they have a secret power that will grant them instant success and turn them into legends; we get movies about kids who drive sports cars really fast so they can drive sports cars even faster; we get movies about boys and girls who put on musicals in high schools and teen vampires who fly in forests.  In almost all of them, the children are thrust into the roles of the adults, and the adults become the villains, if they're even around at all.

Now, there was a time not too long ago when we knew that kids were decidedly different than adults. It seems old-fashioned (not to mention curmudgeonly) to recall that children were meant to be seen and not heard.  They were trained to obey their elders, or, as Sondheim pointed out, at least to listen.  Children were taught that no one in life is entitled to anything, and that those who failed at the basics of understanding common manners and decency were going to meet a terrible end.

Just what that terrible end was, who knew?  But there was no plainer, more stark reality: Bad kids get what they deserve.  Before the days when a parent worried a spanking might throw him into jail or an angry letter written to a school principal might destroy the reputation of the child she was trying to save, long before 24-hour parents and helicopter parenting ... kids were kids.

Some kids were bullies and brats.  Some kits were whiners and complainers.  Some kids were fat.  Some kids were skinny.  Some were rich, some were poor, some had lovely manners, most had none.

If you wanted to see what the child would become, you looked at the parent. This was not just conventional wisdom in those long-ago years, it simply was the case.  Before flowers and hippies and mushrooms and folk music told us otherwise, the message was simple: The only way you could change, to escape from the crushing sameness of the culturally mediocre (which, the counter-culture said, was everywhere) was to take a risk and do something different.

It didn't mean you had to break the rules.  It didn't mean you had to engage in crime.  It means you had to do something more daring, more revolutionary, more inconceivable than anyone else: You had to appear be normal.  You had to be honest.  You had to be brave.  You had to be emotionally true.

In other words, Charlie Bucket won.  The lifetime supply of chocolate?  Yes, but that was only the beginning.

Willy Wonka was hardly normal, let's recall.  But ... under the made-up words, the frippery and frappery, the vermicious knids and Great Glass Wonkavators -- little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous! -- was the most unexpected magic:  Sanity.

Yes, Willy Wonka, delirious, mysterious, possibly dangerous Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) is not only the most sane person living among the Oompa Loompas -- once the greedy, thieving, spying, self-absorbed kids enter his factory, Mr. Willy Wonka searches for small moments of sanity wherever he can find them, sitting under a candy mushroom, wistfully singing of his desire for nothing less than "Pure Imagination," taking a moment to sip some tea before crunching the glass in his teeth. (It is candy, after all, nothing insane about that.)

He surveys the madness about him, retains his composure, and then -- because they insist (and they do insist) -- leads these children whose parents have taught them only to be selfish, spoiled, gluttonous little brats deeper and deeper into the factory to see where all of his dreams become realities and some of his realities become dreams.

The adults claim not to understand what Willy Wonka says: They have lost houses, children, jobs, ambition, so they can't understand the promise of fantasy.  And their children, raised to become as self-absorbed as they are, have no comprehension of the short homilies sung by the Oompa Loompas, imploring them to read more, to stop chewing gum, to quit staring at the TV and talking back to their parents.  None of the children can yet understand what they mean, none of the parents can remember.

So Mr. Wonka doesn't try.  He gives up on them, literally lets them go -- except for one.

Deeper, deeper into the factory until innocent, tow-headed Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) are the only ones left.  Even they, it turns out, are not completely innocent; who is?  But is there a crime in curiosity, in exploration of the fantastic?  For a moment, it seems even this most good-natured of transgression will be punished.

Their departure scene is one of the very best, most tense and borderline heartbreaking, in cinematic history as Willy Wonka appears, for the briefest moment, to be a monster.

With a complete lack of tolerance and tact, he screams at them that they have lost the contest that is at the center of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: "You stole fizzy-lifting drink," he bellows. "You touched the ceilings, which must be washed and sterilized. ... So you get nothing! Good day, sir."

Then, the worst moment -- he turns his back on them:

"I said 'Good Day, Sir!' Willy Wonka ignores them.

But Charlie doesn't fall for it.  He returns the one item of trust that proves the pureness of his heart: Charlie gives back the coveted Everlasting Gobstopper.  Then, into this children's film, comes a line from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, not a story known by many eight-year-olds, though the sentiment knows no age: "So shines a good deed in a weary world."

Charlie has won.  Everything.  More than everything.  The chocolate, yes, but that's just the beginning.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has the happiest of endings because it is not achieved by fulfilling a goal, by vanquishing a foe, by doing the impossible: It comes about because Charlie has done the right thing, and for that, he gets it all.

In that moment -- though there were many that came before to indicate what kind of movie this -- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory moves from the category of supremely entertaining into genuinely great.

It's a vindication for everyone who has played by the rules, even when the rules got murky.  It is validation for everyone who made the right move in the end -- no matter how wrong the moves up to that point may have been. You can watch it when you're 5 and be happy for the other little boy; you can watch it when you're 65 and feel your heart lift because doing the right thing wins the day.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory isn't a movie for kids who need to learn lessons.  It's a movie for filmgoers of any age who need to be reminded that honesty, integrity and an innocent belief in the simplicity between what is right and what is wrong remain relevant, no matter how old our weary world becomes.

Earlier in the film, Charlie has visited his mother to explain why he won't win the prize. "Charlie," she sighs, "There are a hundred billion people in this world and only five of them will find Golden Tickets ... and after this contest is over, you'll be no different from the billions of others who didn't find one."

Charlie, distraught, near to tears, responds, "But I am different.  I want it more than any of them."

We're all different.  We want our Golden Tickets.  And even if we are one of those fictional five, what happens next?  The Golden Ticket may come our way, it may not.  "One day / sweet as a song / Charlie's lucky day / will come along ... 'Til that day / You've gotta keep on strong, Charlie / Up on top is right where you belong."

Can we be Charlie?  Can we rip so many chocolate bars and never find the gold?  And if we did, might we find it's all just a sham anyway?

Yes, Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory is more than 40 years old, but it takes on greater resonance at a time of instant gratification, of kids who aren't given the chance to just be kids -- who don't automatically get to learn the hard lessons of disappointment and a job well done.

Most people never get into the Chocolate Factory, and of the few who do, many wish they had never stepped inside.

Ah, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- we've never had another film quite like it, and I imagine (incorrectly, I hope and pray) that in this time of franchise-management, tentpole films, focus-group and market testing, and marketing research, I imagine we never may.

I've been watching films for more than 43 years.  If I can find just one that comes close to the perfection (even in its occasional messiness) of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I will be a happy man.  I might, like Charlie, live happily ever after.

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