Poor Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) lives near the site of the legendary chocolate factory of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), and will, on occasion, pass the gates of the premises, gates that have not opened in years. Charlie lives in a hovel with his mother and four grandparents (who never get out of bed) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) likes to tell him about the mysterious and reclusive Wonka and how he must be all alone in there: but then, who keeps the factory running? So when it is announced that there are five golden tickets hidden in Wonka bars with which the owner will be allowed to venture inside the factory, Charlie's greatest wish is to find one...
But unlike almost everyone else in the film, Charlie cannot afford to buy a hundred bars of chocolate, so his chances are slim. Fortunately, this is the movies, and things can work out for the underdog, but what kind of movie is this? Based on celebrated author (and chocolate bar expert) Roald Dahl's much-loved children's novel, he was hired to write the script which was then taken out of his hands and rewritten by future Omen creator David Seltzer. For this reason, Dahl disowned the film, and was pretty vocal in his displeasure about it.
Everyone knows that if you eat too much chocolate you will be sick, and if there's one aspect of the Dahl book retained, it's the sick quality of the humour. Everyone who finds the first four tickets is insufferable in some way, be it spoilt rich girl Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) who makes fearsome demands and will not be denied, to the brash Mike TeeVee (Paris Themmen), who spends all day in front of the goggle box; these children could use a lesson in humility which is naturally what they receive. But who is the fifth child? The film makes us wait a long time before the payoff (not another musical number!), but it's no surprise who finds that ticket.
Apparently in contrast to the delights we are promised, the first, non-factory third is rendered in downbeat tones, emphasising Charlie's poverty and unlikely to make anyone laugh much, especially when you see who is winning the prizes. But yes, Charlie does find his ticket, Grandpa Joe gets out of bed to accompany him and off they go the very next day to see Willy Wonka. There were some good candidates for the role, including Jon Pertwee, but Wilder plays him as if born into the part. Known for his highly strung performances, here he is restrained, strange and unpredictable, almost melancholy at times - his isolation seems to have driven him insane - but still very funny.
It depends on your sense of humour of course, but Wonka's apparent callousness when the winning children fall prey to the nasty surprises in the factory are darkly amusing. In fact, the whole journey through the fantastical world has an uneasy and off kilter quality, it's imaginative but there's a puritanical streak running through it with kids punished for comparatively mild transgressions like chewing gum. What is most unforgivable about them is their lack of gratitude, their sense of entitlement that dooms them. Only Charlie has what it takes in the final summing up. Before the happy ending, there have been some distinctly unhappy experiences such as the nightmarish boat ride which includes images of a large millipede crawling over a face or a chicken's head being cut off. The factory is an extension of Wonka's personality: dangerous and mischievous under its civilised veneer and although Wonka turns out to be a nice guy at the end, you'll be recalling his cruel yet fitting tricks nevertheless. Music by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse.