Children’s books typically make for better movies than anything written for adults. There’s a moment in Mel Stuart’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” when a puff of white dust explodes in Mike Teavee’s face. “Boy, that’s great stuff,” he says, eyes closed, massaging his jaw. Though only an adult would think “drugs,” it’s the sort of cynical detail that, when compounded with others, gives a child an icky sense of unplaceable apprehension. It’s the anxiety of perceiving without understanding — of witnessing a parent drunk, of hearing a lewd joke. However unpleasant, half-knowing is one of the most visceral experiences of prepubescent life.
Historically speaking, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which came out in 1971, is the earliest example of this Feeling in film that I can think of. Though the clamminess would come to permeate entire children’s movies a decade later, here it exists only in isolated, unventilated set pieces: the recurring appearance of the ghoulish Mr. Slugworth; the psychedelic tunnel flashing with images of a centipede crawling over a grown man’s face; Gene Wilder’s antic and intermittently sadistic Willy Wonka. (Children probably don’t realize he drinks during the factory tour. “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” he says with a smirk.)
The mouthwatering baroqueness of the imaginary confections in Roald Dahl’s original 1964 novel — “marshmallows that taste of violets, and rich caramels that change color every 10 seconds as you suck them” — is expressed best in the film’s trippy wax props and mesmerizing opening credits of chocolate sliding down conveyor belts in slabs, ripples and dollops. Dahl is a master of the derogatory adjective, and his vile children (Augustus Gloop is “a monstrous ball of dough with two small greedy curranty eyes”) are perfectly cast in the film, with the young actors eager to grimace with moral rot.
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