Blu-ray Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition

Hot on the heels of Citizen Kane and Ben-Hur, on October 18th Warner Brothers will release Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition.

Willy WonkaWilly Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s book originally titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), has become a beloved classic since its 1971 theatrical release. However, when it first hit theaters on June 30, 1971, it failed to set the box office on fire, largely due to lack of promotion. Despite largely positive critical reaction, it was the fifty-third highest grossing film of the year in the U.S., earning approximately $4 million, equivalent to about $17.4 million in 2009.

But, as with films before it, such as It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and to a lesser degree, The Wizard of Oz (which had a much more impressive box office result), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory became a very popular film after repeated showings on television and home video releases.

Roald Dahl adapted his own book for the screen, and created a smart and entertaining film that holds up forty years later (Though Dahl always said he was displeased with the final result). One of the biggest reasons I’ve also been a big fan of Roald Dahl is that he realized kids weren’t stupid, and that comes through in his screenplay; because he treated children as individuals capable of forming opinions and ideas, he allowed the film to have plenty of jokes and entendres for the adults in the audience to enjoy.

The structure of Willy Wonka is similar to The Wizard of Oz, in that a child goes on a magical journey filled with adventure, fantasy, and song and learns a valuable lesson along the way. Directed by Mel Stuart (If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, One Is a Lonely Number) the film stars Gene Wilder as the chocolate maker Willy Wonka; a very mysterious figure who long ago locked himself away in his factory. But for reasons that only become clear at the end of the movie, he decides to hold a contest to open up his plant to a few lucky people. Inside five Wonka Bars he has hidden Golden Tickets which will gain the holder and one family member a tour of the huge factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Predictably, people all over the world go crazy trying to find the golden tickets.

The first winner is young Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a gluttonous German boy who is always eating.  The second person to find a ticket is Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), a rich, spoiled, brat. The third winner is Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), a pushy, ill-mannered child who holds the world’s record for chewing the same piece of gum. Next up, is Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), a rude, smart aleck, who watches television all day long. And finally is our hero, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), an honest, helpful, loving, boy, with nary two nickels to rub together.

Charlie’s goodness and the tough hand he’s been dealt makes it impossible not to root for him. Charlie is so poor he lives in a one-room shack with his mother and both pairs of grandparents. The four grandparents occupy a single bed that they haven’t gotten out of in twenty years. When Charlie wins the big prize, he chooses his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) to accompany him to the factory. Joe is not only his grandfather, he’s Charlie’s best friend and supporter: “Don’t worry, Charlie, you’ll find a Golden Ticket,” he says, always believing his grandson would come out on top.

Once inside the factory, Gene Wilder gives one of the best performances of his career as Willy Wonka. At once fun loving then cruel, you’re never really sure if this guy has a screw loose or not. Is it all a put on? His total composure as each child is dispatched—one going up a chocolate flue, a second down a “bad egg” sorter, another turned into a giant blueberry, and yet a fourth disintegrating into television atoms—love it.

Last but not least, are the songs,  with lyrics and music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley: “The Candy Man,” “Cheer Up, Charlie,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “Pure Imagination,” “Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do,” and “I Want It Now.” Each of them adds an element of fun to an already warm, delightful, albeit devilish adventure.

Warner Bros. 1080p VC-1 transfer presented at a 1.78 aspect ratio is the same one used in the original 2009 Blu-ray release.. Colors are brilliant and pleasing. However, detail is inconsistent throughout, with softness a consistent theme. That said, Skintones look natural and contrast and black levels are appropriate. There is a minimal level of grain that creates a genuine film viewing experience. For a film that’s forty years old, this transfer is impressive and beats all prior releases of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory hands down. The wacky world of Willy Wonka never looked so good.

The TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack at 1468 kbps is another holdover from the 2009 release. While it’s not reference quality, this setup suits the feature very well. Newley and Bricusse’s songs sound solid from “The Candy Man” to “Oompa-Loompa-Doompa-De-Do” and are a big part of the film’s enjoyment. While the bass wasn’t overwhelming, the track did its job in providing a nice feeling of total immersion. All dialogue was clear, with all the voices at even levels and no sudden drop outs in volume.

Subtitles are provided in English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

As this is an Ultimate Collector’s Edition, the film and all the goodies, comes in a box similar in size to the editions for The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Ben-Hur. I will caution that the boxes contents slip out the bottom side of the cover, so be careful when lifting it off a shelf.

The following special features, all in standard definition, appeared on the earlier Blu-ray release:

  • Commentary with the Wonka Kids – All five of the original child actors reunite for this breezy track. Not a lot of hard information is presented, but the cast has a good rapport and seems to be having fun reminiscing about their time on the set. Their distaste for Anthony Newley is particularly funny.
  • Pure Imagination (30:25) – An excellent making-of documentary featuring interviews with Mel Stuart, producer David Wolper, uncredited screenwriter David Seltzer, and Gene Wilder. Among the information learned: Stuart’s then 10-year-old daughter was a fan of the book and convinced him to make the movie; the Quaker Oats company produced the film to promote their new candy line, which was the real reason for the title change; and all of the kids auditioned for the picture by reading from the book because there was no finished script at that time.
  • Original Theatrical Featurette (4:01) – A vintage promotional piece focusing on the film’s art direction.
  • Sing Along Songs  – Four musical numbers excerpted from the movie with karaoke-style sing along lyrics.
  • Theatrical Trailer (3 min.) – A vintage trailer that runs far too long and gives away too much of the story, right up to and including the final shot.

The following special features, again in standard definition, are new to this set:

  • Mel Stuart’s Wonkavision (13:44) In a new interview, the director discusses what he wanted to get across with the film. This segment features appearances by several of the grown up Wonka kids as well as Stuart’s own children.
  • A World of Pure Imagination: (12:33) In this all too brief vintage featurette, we get a brief interview with author Roald Dahl and a behind-the-scenes look at the production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
  • A Standard DVD of the film
  • Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by Mel Stuart: First published in 2005, this fully illustrated, 144-page book takes you behind-the-scenes of a film as only a director can, and provides updates on all the cast members. A real must-read for fans of the film.
  • Correspondence: Several letters relating to the production. One is handwritten from Gene Wilder regarding his wardrobe. Others relate to the makeup and coloring of the Oompa Loompas, sending the script to Jack Albertson, and expense money for Peter Ostrum’s trip to New York, etc.
  • Wonka Pencil Tin: with scented pencils and eraser.
  • Golden Ticket Instant Win Game Piece: Enter for a chance to win a trip for two to Los Angeles. Following the film’s premise, there will be five grand-prize winners. There also will be 40 reproductions of the original theatrical poster given away as runner-up prizes.

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