Writer’s Block: Channel surfing yields encounter with candymen

Who does a better job with the role of Willy Wonka in the film adaptations of Roald Dahl’s delightful tale of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?”

Tim Hennagir
Tim Hennagir

A strange pre-Easter channel surfing session recently prompted that intriguing confectionary-related conundrum.

Gene Wilder starred in the 1971 version of the children’s classic about the eccentric chocolatier; Johnny Depp’s interpretation appeared in 2005. Both films aired during overlapping television time slots last Saturday night, providing me with more than enough fodder for a cinematic comparison.

No journey into all things Wonka would be complete without a quick consultation with Wikipedia, one of my favorite sources for movie background.

Let’s take Wilder’s performance first. “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” the 1971 musical of the 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” written by Dahl, received positive reviews, but it was a box office failure despite the fact that it was able to recoup its budget.

The idea for adapting the book into a film came about when director Mel Stuart’s 10-year-old daughter read the book and asked her father to make it a movie. Stuart showed the book to Producer David Wolper, who happened to be in the midst of talks with the Quaker Oats Co. regarding a vehicle to introduce a new candy bar.

It was agreed that the film would be a children’s musical, and that Dahl himself would write the screenplay. However, the title was changed to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” in order to promote the aforementioned candy tie-in.

The film has developed into a cult favorite due to its repeated television airings and home video sales. In 1972, the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.

Wilder was initially hesitant to accept the part of Wonka, but finally accepted the role under one condition.Wilder would only do the movie if Wonka first appeared onscreen coming out of the factory hobbling with a cane, only to then lose it and do a somersault.

When asked why, Wilder replied, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” That comment captures the beauty as well as brilliance of Wilder’s performance.

Wilder later earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Wonka, but lost to Chaim Topol who starred as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Depp’s effort in the 2005 Tim Burton-directed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” strikes me as downright creepy.

Roger Ebert is one of my favorite film critics. His Chicago Times review of Depp’s performance is spot-on. “Depp, an actor of considerable gifts, has never been afraid to take a chance, but this time he takes the wrong one,” Ebert wrote. “His Willy Wonka is an enigma in an otherwise mostly delightful movie from Tim Burton, where the visual invention is a wonderment.”

According to Ebert, Depp may deny he had Michael Jackson in mind when he created the look and feel of Willy Wonka, but moviegoers trust their eyes.

When we see Willy opening the doors of the factory to welcome the five little winners, they will be relieved that the kids brought along adult guardians.

“Depp’s Wonka – his dandy’s clothes, his unnaturally pale face, his makeup and lipstick, his hat, his manner – reminds me inescapably of Jackson and, oddly, in a certain use of the teeth, chin and bobbed hairstyle, of Carol Burnett,” Ebert wrote. I wholeheartedly concur.

The story of Willy and his factory has had disturbing undertones ever since it first appeared in Roald Dahl’s 1964 book, Ebert wrote. It is essential to the story that the bad children be punished.

All of the children meet fates appropriate to their misdemeanors. Unfortunately, it was Depp’s bad luck that the movie came out just as the Jackson trial has finally struggled to its conclusion.

A California jury exonerated Jackson of the child molestation, conspiracy and alcohol charges that could have sent him to prison for nearly 20 years.

Ebert concluded: “In ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Depp was famously channeling Keith Richards, which may have primed us to look for possible inspirations for this performance. But leaving ‘Pirates’ aside, can anyone look at [Depp’s] Willy Wonka and not think of Michael Jackson?”

Wilder’s performance stands the test of time. As kids, we watched this movie with a sense of magic and wonderment.  Years later, seeing Wilder in his purple velvet suitcoat direct an army of Oompa Loompas provided a night of compelling fun inside a candy factory.