Seeing Double is the Scene-Stealers series that celebrates the only thing better than watching one movie—watching two movies.
Each week we look for a more perfect cinematic union as we view and discuss a pair of movies chosen either for things they have in common or things they don’t. The films may be old or new, obscure or well known, celebrated or reviled. The only rules are that we must justify the pairing up front, and all titles have to be readily viewable at home, as determined by their availability to rent or stream through the most popular home video websites.
In September of 1990, I received the novel “Matilda” for my eleventh birthday. Upon reading it, I declared that Roald Dahl was my favorite author. Between it and four others I had read, I knew Dahl’s books were unique. They were funny, scary, grotesque, and exciting in a way that never made me feel like I was being talked down to. It was a rare and welcome change from most of the children’s literature that was foisted upon me. But two months later I found out that Dahl had died, and I was heartbroken.
Aside from the newly released “The Witches,” there was one other Roald Dahl adaptation that I knew of and loved and had seen multiple times by that point, 1971′s “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.” It was easily one of my most beloved movies, despite the fact that the infamous boat scene inspired a recurring nightmare. It was also the first time I remember feeling that a movie was definitively better than the book it was based on. Apparently this was an opinion Dahl didn’t share, as the experience reportedly soured him on working in the film industry.
After Dahl’s death, a sizable portion of his work has been adapted and re-adapted, but my hands-down favorite is 2009′s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Like “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” before it, it’s an intelligent, witty, scary, and thrilling adaptation that captures the spirit of Roald Dahl’s work, and is not afraid to expand on or deviate from its source. Both also have multi-generational appeal despite their children’s movie classifications. Together they should make a great, family friendly, Dahl-centric double feature.
WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)
After a rather delicious-looking title sequence, “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” opens with a musical number sung by a man who is either the world’s friendliest candy store owner or its worst businessman. Why else would he give handfuls of product away to the children that crowd his shop? I guess it helps keep their sugar-addled brains from wandering too far as he sings and dances around. As his song ends, looking in through the shop’s window is Charlie Bucket, a bright-eyed young man who could rival Little Oprhan Annie in the category of “most pluck in the face of extreme poverty” at the Fictional Character Olympics.
On his way home from his paper route, Charlie stops by the gates of the foreboding factory of Willy Wonka. As Charlie peers in, a man pushing a cart full of knives intones ominously “Nobody ever comes in, and nobody ever comes out.” Its the first instance of the movie veering into pants-wetting territory, as Charlie runs home to the shack housing his mother and four grandparents.
For a movie called “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” it’s interesting that neither of the two make a proper appearance until the midpoint, a trick Steven Spielberg also employed four years later with “Jaws.” Regardless, this first half is inspired, and a great example of how the movie added or changed elements to make for a better cinematic experience. In the book, the events leading up to Charlie finding the ticket take place largely in his house through expository conversations with his grandparents, as they learn of the contest and its winners via newspaper articles.
The movie adds scenes of Charlie at school with the world’s most hilariously British teacher, along with two musical numbers, some television news interstitials, and a few great satirical moments including the invention of a computer which refuses to divulge the location of Wonka’s golden tickets because “that would be cheating,” as well as a wife who desperately wants her kidnapped husband’s safe return but is torn when the detective informs her the ransom is her case of Wonka bars. “How long will they give me to think it over?” It’s pretty remarkable how adult all of these scenes feel, and how they help temper the more fantastical elements.
Also created for the film is the character of Slugworth, a sinister looking man who appears to all of the ticket finders and whispers in their ears. Once our hero Charlie finds the last ticket, Slugworth stops him in a alley to make him an offer he can’t refuse.
Slugworth’s presence there raises an interesting question, and one I never really thought about before. How did he know where the tickets were going to be found? The revelation of his true identity provides at least a partial explanation. But did his employer somehow know who was going to win? Were the children hand-picked? Did Slugworth plant the money for Charlie to find after bribing the shop owner to hand the boy a particular candy bar even if Charlie didn’t specifically ask for it?
Charlie is the only ticket holder without an obvious flaw. Augustus Gloop is a glutton, Veruca Salt is a greedy, spoiled brat, Violet Beauregarde is a motor-mouth who chews gum and talks incessantly, and Mike Teevee is addicted to television and acts like the world should entertain him. In Wonka’s factory, each exits after failing to overcome these faults, in situations seemingly designed to bait them specifically. But is Charlie also tested?
His flaw is that he’s poor, and in the still very class-conscience England during the years the book was written, it would still be enough to make people distrustful of him. This makes the film’s addition of Slugworth more ingenious. He offers Charlie an impossibly large sum of money, enough to ensure his family’s well being for a long time, if Charlie will just turn over one small piece of candy. Charlie is torn between his selflessness and his honesty.
There cannot be enough good things said about the entire cast, but two people especially stand out. The first is the incomparable Jack Albertson, whose Grandpa Joe is beyond perfect. He’s funny, warm, and filled with as much wonder as any of the children. He’s also mischievous but protective, and precisely the partner Charlie needs on the strange journey. “Yes, strange Charlie. But it’s fun!” He’s also a great singer, and his “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” is so triumphant it makes me want to dance around the room every time.
The other casting masterstroke is Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He gives a career-best performance as the eccentric, candy-making genius. No matter how bizarre things get, Wilder keeps the film grounded with an infectious charm and a knowing smile. He’s always scheming and always dreaming and he actually sells you on the idea that he could be responsible for all the factory’s many wonders.
Wilder is a big improvement over the book’s creepier, slightly malevolent Wonka, and the most successful part of a film that succeeds on all levels. While Dahl is the sole credited screenwriter, it was actually re-written by David Selznik, who apparently was responsible for most of the deviations from the novel. Ultimately, regardless of who is responsible, “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” is among the best family films of all time.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)
Upon my second viewing of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I can safely say that it too belongs on that list. Wes Anderson surprised a lot of people with this movie. Not only was this his first non-R rated film, but it was also his first adaptation, and his first feature-length foray into stop-motion animation.
At only 24 pages, Roald Dahl’s original book would have been much shorter if it was filmed solely as written. But Anderson found it to be the perfect template to tell a story he enjoyed in a medium that interested him. He has always been a visually oriented director, meticulously planning elements of each shot and subtly and not-so-subtly employing humor through props, costumes, and set decoration. As a film that is put together one frame at a time, the stop-motion world of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” makes for an ideal playground.
There’s a rambunctious energy to this film that is downright joyous, like a child playing with his favorite toy. It’s hard not to fall in love with each little detail. The film is beautiful and colorful and does not quite resemble any other movie. Its slightly jerky animation has an amateurish quality that somehow makes it more endearing. The recent short film version of “Peter and the Wolf” probably comes closest in look and feel. But letting the seams show gives the filmmakers license to be even more playful than they would otherwise, like in long shots where it’s clear that the standard models with fur have been replaced by exaggerated, Gumby-esque clay figures.
The movie opens with a prologue added by Anderson, featuring Mr. Fox and his wife caught in a trap, with the revelation of her pregnancy and a plea for him to stop stealing birds for a living. Considering that it’s the type of candid dialog most children’s films shy away from, this relationship-based drama is one of the films’ greatest strengths.
Another addition is their “different,” cape-wearing son Ash, as well as the way the animal’s society hilariously mirrors ours with their lawyers and real estate agents and newspapermen and miniaturized electronic devices. But the plot itself is transplanted straight from the book: Mr. Fox is a fearless, clever, and cunning creature who finds the tables turned when he is hunted by three local farmers who have been immortalized by an eerie children’s rhyme whose refrain punctuate the film’s darkest and most exciting moments.
Boggis, Bunce, and Bean
These horrible crooks
So different in looks
Were none the less equally mean.
Like all of Anderson’s films, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” uses carefully selected pop music to great effect. This includes three songs by the Beach Boys, two by Burl Ives, one by the Rolling Stones, and “The Ballad of Davey Crockett,” among others. While not otherwise a musical, there is also a hysterical song performed by a banjo picking character named Petey who sings a song with a chorus of nonsensical words. Upon hearing it, the humorless Bean chastises him. “That’s just weak songwriting. You wrote a bad song, Petey.”
Similar to the scene with the wife receiving the ransom demand in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” it is exactly the type of detail that illustrates the fun the filmmakers are able to have while playing in Dahl’s sandbox.
Another interesting element is sound design. Unlike most movies about talking animals, the actors never sound like they were recorded individually inside a studio. There’s a feeling of an ensemble reacting to each other, and it sounds like it was recorded on location. This odd bit of realism helps sell the world in a subtle way, despite its cellophane water and cotton smoke.
While its scariest moments don’t quite rival those of “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is commendable for the dark places it is willing to go, including the three farmers whose guns and bombs pose a very real danger to Fox, his family, and his friends. Particularly haunting is the scene in which Bean destroys his trailer in a fit of unbridled rage as Boggis and Bunce look on helplessly. Also “pitch perfect” is the knife-wielding rat Fox does battle with, who in death finds a way to redeem himself. “Redemption, sure. But in the end he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
I can’t say it enough. I really, really, really love this movie.
WORTH A DOUBLE FEATURE?
Both films are inventive and charming and colorful and hilarious. “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” sets a high bar, but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” clears it. While they have their roots in the words of the same man, both are all the more successful because of what they added or changed along the way. Viewed solely as two family friendly films, the double feature works because of the intelligence behind both and the similarity of the approaches regardless of the medium employed to bring it life. As a double feature intended solely to honor Dahl’s imagination and the people who were inspired by it, the two films play together even better.
As always, I can’t watch any double feature without thinking of alternate pairings. Here are a few potential alternatives for each:
For “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”:
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) – The OTHER fantastical children’s musical revolving around a candy maker/inventor and based on a novel by a British author. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” has a similar wit, feel, and tone thanks in part to Roald Dahl, who co-wrote the screenplay three years before adapting his own novel for the screen.
“The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975) – It’s hard to watch “Willy Wonka” without falling in love with Gene Wilder, which helps ensure the best frame of mind to watch this highly uneven but still charming and likable spoof that Wilder wrote, directed, and starred in.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – Retaining the original novel’s title, song lyrics, nut-sorting squirrels, and creepier Wonka, there’s a lesson here about how making an adaptation more faithful does not necessarily make it better. Their approaches are different enough that watching them back to back makes for a fascinating double feature, especially considering that Dahl himself disowned the first film.
For “Fantastic Mr. Fox”:
“James and the Giant Peach” (1996) – The OTHER stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation, this one directed by Henry Selick, who left the co-directing job on “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to helm “Coraline” instead. Quite good in its own right, its only potential downside is that it is probably the most toothless of all the Roald Dahl adaptations.
“Where the Wild Things Are” (2009) – Much like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and released within weeks of it, Spike Jonze’s beautiful and heartbreaking film is just as successful at retaining the voice and spirit of the original children’s book without abandoning the style and energy that made him a darling of independent cinema.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) – In some ways, Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” plays like a lighthearted re-visitation of many of the issues and themes broached in his familial magnum opus: from a deceitful, thrill-seeking father concerned about his mortality and legacy, to children living in the shadows of their relatives and each other and dealing with the jealousy and turmoil that results.