Childhood is terrifying and awesome, and few films capture that dichotomy as well as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The candy-colored fantasy of the film grabbed my imagination as a child in a way that few other films did, and my fascination with it didn't wane as I became an adult. The barely concealed horror of it held me in thrall too, and definitely added to my enjoyment of the movie as I aged. My reasons for loving it shifted over the years, but the love itself stayed strong.
As a kid, there’s the obvious angle of wish fulfillment. What kid doesn’t want an invite to a magical candy factory where jungles made out of actual, edible candy exist? What kid doesn’t want to be handed the keys to that magical place, and told it is now theirs? No kid I ever knew, that’s for certain. Hell, the first time I ever remember thinking about interior design was planning, as a seven-year-old, to build a candy room in my house when I grew up, just like the one Wonka takes the kids into where Augustus Gloop meets his (possible) end.
But the appeal of the movie for me as a kid went deeper than that. The real appeal was the revelation — the admission, really, since most kids already know it — that adults can be scary, mean and dangerous, even if they’re the “good guys.” Sure, the parents in the film are a hopeless, useless bunch that have raised a lot of thoroughly shitty kids, but goddamn, Wonka is a fucking monster!
He puts those kids through deadly test after deadly test, blithely unconcerned with their well-being as they fail and barely live through them. And that’s if they do live through them — I’ve always suspected that at least some of them didn’t, and the movie certainly never makes any effort to dissuade me of that suspicion. Hell, that boat ride alone is the stuff of nightmares, and as far as I can tell, Wonka did that just to freak everyone the fuck out. That fit what I knew of certain adults even as a kid — just because they were all smiles and jokes didn't mean they weren’t going to put you through hell at every opportunity they got.
As I got older, I came to love the film for introducing me to Roald Dahl, who was then and is to this day one of my favorite authors. That same theme, of adults being terrible, runs through a lot of his work, as does his barely concealed contempt for most children, but that edge sets his work apart from most of the treacly nonsense that passes for kid lit. Dahl knew that people can be really awful, given the slightest opportunity, and he wasn’t afraid to tell kids. You have to respect that, and it was no small part of why I loved him. All praise to the filmmakers for not watering down that dark truth at the heart of Dahl’s work.
These days, I mostly appreciate it for the fact that it is one of the most psychedelic films of all time. I have a special place in my heart for psychedelic cinema, and Willy Wonka is right up there with Altered States as one of the all-time greats. There’s all the day-glo candy, of course. And the weird shifts of perspective, like the room that gets tinier and tinier. Those Oompa Loompas are as close to Terence McKenna’s self-transforming machine elves as anything I’ve ever seen this side of a deep mushroom trance. And of course, that goddamn boat ride — if that wasn’t conceived of by someone who had at least once overdid it with the LSD, I’d be shocked.
In short, it’s a movie that’s great for kids, both for giving them a fun ride and scaring the shit out of them about what adults might do to them. It’s a wonderful intro to one of the all-time great children’s authors, for largely those same reasons. And when you’re finally grown up enough to buy illegal drugs, but not so grown up that you’ve realized how bad of an idea it is to take illegal drugs, it’s a great thing to look at while you soak your brain in exotic chemicals. That’s a fine film on every account.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.
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