A movie about a wild-eyed reclusive madman who sends the entire world into a candy-scrabbling frenzy as part of an elaborate mindfuck culminating in the transfer of his candy empire to a child, 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is one of the odder “children’s” movies ever made, and one whose survival as a cult favorite was largely dependent on Gene Wilder’s tremendous work in the title role, as well as the movie’s natural appeal to the type of weirdos who grow up to be film directors (see: Burton, Tim). Willy Wonka wasn’t terribly successful when it was released, least of all among parents who questioned its dark overtones and smattering of scary moments (just ask poor Spike Jonze about those folks), but it’s become accepted as a sort of minor classic over the years, particularly since Burton fumbled his Johnny Depp-led Wonka remake a few years ago.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has made the jump to hi-def before as part of Warners’ HD DVD catalog, but with that format dead and buried, it’s time for a new reissue, which the studio has taken care of by making Wonka part of its Blu-ray Book series, which also includes Falling Down and 300. Like the others, Wonka comes as part of a handsomely bound book containing information about the film — in this case, (uncredited) essays about the movie, biographies for some of the stars, and lyrics for the songs (which include the classic “The Candy Man”). The packaging will make you crazy if you’re a stickler for organized-looking shelves, but I think it adds a little something extra to the upgrades — some of which, frankly, don’t look like they’ve been improved much.
Thankfully, Willy Wonka doesn’t fall into that category; the Blu-ray transfer is bright and crisp, and the audio, though about as center-heavy as you’d expect for a movie this old, is rich and full. I haven’t seen the HD DVD transfer, so I can’t compare the two (or even vouch for whether this is a new remaster or simply a Blu-ray version of the transfer they did for the dead format), but I can tell you it looks and sounds better than a lot of younger films I’ve seen reissued in the last year. If you’re a Wonka fan, you’ll want to own this version, no questions asked.
The bonus features are disappointingly minimal, although what is included manages to be more informative than your average batch of featurettes. Pure Imagination: The Story of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory takes you behind the scenes of the movie, detailing the unsurprisingly haphazard way Roald Dahl’s classic book made its way to the screen — it was essentially a $2 million commercial for Quaker’s new Willy Wonka line of candy bars, which makes it all the more remarkable that the book’s stranger elements (and Dahl’s rather misanthropic worldview) survived the transition. You also get to catch up with the grown-up child stars of the movie, including Peter Ostrum (who played Charlie and now works as a veterinarian in upstate New York) and Wilder, who remains as quietly captivating as ever (at one point, he sells out Paris Themmen, who played Mike Teevee, as a troublemaker on the set, then pauses, looks at the camera, and says “You know I love you now, but…”). The commentary track is also a treat, featuring contributions from the men and women who played the boys and girls.
It’s an uneven film — the ending, in particular, feels like the last-minute affair it was — but one whose slight undercurrent of darkness and danger feels wonderfully refreshing in this era of bubble-wrapped entertainment for our bubble-wrapped boys and girls, and in any event, Gene Wilder was five times the Wonka that Johnny Depp could ever be. If you’ve got a Willy-shaped hole in your collection (snicker), fill it with the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory Blu-ray book.