So it's quite a story – A young girl tells her father he should make a movie about her favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His experience is with documentaries, but somehow her father gets the backing to make the film. When released, it's a flop because mothers don't like it. But ten years later, videotapes are invented, the movie reaches a new audience, and is now regarded as a beloved classic!
Charlie Bucket (played by Peter Ostrum) lives in poverty with his mother and both sets of grandparents. He often walks past the Wonka chocolate factory, which continues to produce confections although Wonka himself (played by Gene Wilder) has not been seen in many years, and there are no workers any more.
Then comes the announcement: Willy Wonka will give factory tours to five lucky winners of Golden Tickets hidden inside Wonka Bars, and a lifetime supply of chocolate! Will Charlie be lucky enough to win a ticket?
The movie has a strong cast, including vaudeville veteran Jack Albertson as Charlie's grandpa. Interestingly, Jean Stapleton turned down the role as one of the mothers… and made the pilot for All in the Family, for which she became famous. Peter Ostrum, who is almost perfect as Charlie, turned down a three-picture contract and retired after making his only movie.
Usually, when they make a movie based on a novel, the movie people feel they have to make changes to show their creative input, and the result suffers. This movie is a rare example where the changes actually improved the result. The story is simplified by getting rid of characters (Charlie's father, and half of the parents), but improved by adding two new characters – a brief appearance by a sinister tinker outside the factory gates, and the equally sinister Mr. Slugworth who wants to steal Wonka's secrets. In the novel, Charlie's family are extremely poor and near starvation – that's been cut. The novel is set in an American city, but the movie is set in a deliberately unspecified location (which seems English, but was filmed in Munich). The 2'-tall Oompa Loopas from the novel (originally black Africans, in later editions white-pink jungle-dwellers) have became larger and orange-skinned.
The Fizzy Lifting Room, merely mentioned in the book, becomes a key part of the plot. The Star Trek-like elevator from the novel is partially replaced by the foam-spewing Wonkamobile (the foam was actually a fire retardant that Ostrum was allergic to!). The room about squirrels looking for 'bad nuts' would have been difficult to film, so it became the room with geese who lay golden eggs (some of which are 'bad eggs'). The novel had an extended ending with Charlie reuniting with his family; the movie ends before that point, with a wonderful bit of dialogue which the screenwriter came up with after he'd finished the project, only to get a desperate long-distance phone call from a producer who wanted a better ending!
There is one plot wrinkle: the movie's new Slugworth subplot implies that the children were not selected randomly, suggesting Charlie was supposed to win against the four 'bad' children all along.
The DVD version I watched was the 20th anniversary edition, which includes commentary from the five child actors (sadly, one has since passed away). It was fun to listen to them joking around and sharing memories.
Can you game it? I could easily imagine a Hordes of the Things army including Willy Wonka, Oompa Loopas, and the various Wonka vehicles.
As I write this, it's the 50th anniversary of the release of this movie, and I've read some harsh criticism of the 1971 movie. I strongly disagree. The novel is not 'better' than the movie; the movie in my mind improves on the novel. (The original Wonka is a hyperactive old man; the movie Wonka keeps the dialogue but makes the character warmer.) The movie was not 'low budget' or 'campy' – it was the same designer who did 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and reflects what was possible at the time.
I like the 1971 movie. I can watch it over and over again. The music is good, the acting is good, the script is good. It's a gem of a film.