Five Famous Film Critics Who Hated ‘Willy Wonka’ When It Came Out in 1971
Whether it’s Timothée Chalamet’s new Wonka prequel or Johnny Depp’s 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you can count on some cranks to curse Hollywood for tinkering with their beloved Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Generations of kids have grown up with the Gene Wilder feature, and any attempts to update, improve or embellish the original are met with scorn.
But while some consider the film a classic today, it wasn’t met with universal admiration when it was released in 1971. Here are five famous critics who didn’t exactly find Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory scrumdiddlyumptious.
While his TV partner Roger Ebert enjoyed Willy Wonka, calling it “probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz,” Siskel wasn’t buying what the original Wonka was selling. "Anticipation of what Wonka's factory is like is so well developed that its eventual appearance is a terrible letdown,” he complained. “Sure enough there is a chocolate river, but it looks too much like the Chicago River to be appealing. The quality of the color photography is flat. The other items in Wonka's factory—bubblegum trees and lollypop flowers—also look cheap. Nothing in the factory is appealing.”
“Compared to other films for young children,” Siskel said, “Willy Wonka rates barely acceptable.”
Variety didn’t bother putting an individual reviewer's name to its meh reaction. The film was an “okay family musical fantasy,” it said, with a “fair score.” One element that Variety said “inhibited interest” was Gene Wilder’s character, “rather cynical and sadistic until virtually the end of the film.”
The grand dame of American film criticism wrote that Willy Wonka was “a fantasy with music for children that never finds an appropriate style; it's stilted and frenetic, like Prussians at play.”
Howard Thompson of The New York Times
New York Times film critic Thompson wrote, “The children have so few good films to claim as their own. Much as it pains us to say so, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is not one of them.”
“Yes, it's clean,” Thompson admitted. “It's also tedious and stagy with little sparkle and precious little humor … Take the youngsters only if they're tired of Sesame Street, and why should they be?”
Who better to judge the quality of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory than the man who wrote the book on which it was based? The children's author absolutely hated it.
He was angry about the casting of Wilder, for one thing, believing the actor didn’t have enough edge. Dahl’s “ideal casting was (English comic) Spike Milligan and he said Milligan was really up for doing it,” says Donald Sturrock, author of Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl. “He even shaved his beard off to do a screen test.”
Dahl detested the film’s music, finding it saccharine, sappy and sentimental. But what really bothered him was screenwriters taking liberties with his plot. (Charlie doesn't belch his way to freedom in the book, for example.) "They always want to change a book's storyline," said Dahl’s second wife, Felicity Dahl, in 1996. “What makes Hollywood think children want the endings changed for a film, when they accept it in a book?”