Who Mourns For Gene Wilder?


Everybody, apparently. A fairly consistent "why remake a classic?" theme has run through nearly all coverage of the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with special emphasis on the idea that Johnny Depp can't match Gene Wilder's original performance. Beyond rounding out today's movie theme and demonstrating that Generation X has finally become the same bunch of boring, rigid, back-in-my-day turds our parents were, this phenomenon has an additional point of interest.

Gene Wilder's performance in Willy Wonka is beyond my poor powers to praise, but here's something fans of the original movie never mention: Gene Wilder doesn't show up until 45 minutes into the movie. That's just about halfway through the picture—until then it's some of the most pointless and unnecessary exposition ever put on screen, along with musical numbers. Whatever else director Mel Stuart thought about his preteen audience, he apparently assumed that kids are huge Jack Albertson fans. Adults, more accustomed to having their time wasted, can pass this stuff by easily, but kids tune out before the picture even gets under way.

People have forgotten just how second-rate the making of children's movies was back in their own youth. It's an easy thing to forget today, in the era of "hand-holder" movies, when kids' stuff gets the lion's share of Hollywood attention. Who dares to speak of the dark ages of Disney's live-action kids movies, which included not only the now-doubly-unmourned Herbie franchise and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again but countless career missteps for Kurt Russell? Have your fond memories of the pictures that rated as "classics" in your youth led you to check out, say, Mary Poppins recently? If so, you'll know that it's longer than Abel Gance's Napoleon and that in a truly efficient market Dick Van Dyke would have been prosecuted for that cockney accent. Instead, he was assigned to do it again just a few years later, in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, another kids' classic whose reputation is in inverse proportion to its watchability.

This last picture, scripted by Roald Dahl, brings us to another Chocolate Factory point nobody's mentioned. Contrary to all expectations, it turns out it's Roald Dahl's world, and we're just livin' in it. Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, the upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox… Who could have guessed the old Jew-baiter would get such a second wind in death? Can a movie version of his wife-swapping gotcha tale Switch Bitch (preferably as a children's picture) be far behind?

In a reversal worthy of Marlon Brando's critical history of The Freshman (which he called "a stinker" one week and "a screamingly funny film that will be remembered for decades" the next), Gene Wilder hands Johnny Depp his ass here, then calls him "magical" here.