Release Date(s)1971 (June 29, 2021)
Studio(s)Wolper Pictures/The Quaker Oats Company (Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) is as good a boy as they come. He works hard delivering papers to help support his single mother and his four elderly and bedridden grandparents, whom his mother cares for. He never gets into trouble. And he studies hard in school. But Charlie dreams of bigger things in life, dreams strongly influenced by the fact that he regularly walks past a mysterious chocolate factory owned by the great Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein). Those dreams loom suddenly larger when its announced on TV one day that Wonka is inviting a handful of lucky people inside his factory for a tour. It seems he’s hidden five Golden Tickets in his latest shipment of Wonka Bars, so the world quickly scrambles to find them. And when Charlie unexpectedly discovers the very last one at the local candy stand, he and his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson, The Poseidon Adventure, TV’s Chico and the Man) are in for the time of their lives.
Based upon the 1964 children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Mel Stuart’s big screen musical fantasy Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was an entertainment staple for young members of Generation X in the late 1970s. Though the film was only modestly successful in theaters, it was broadcast on NBC TV on Thanksgiving night in 1974, making it an instant holiday favorite. It then repeated on TV for the next two years, cementing its place in the hearts of American children at the time. But what really makes it a classic is a career-best performance by Wilder, who won the role over the likes of all six members of Monty Python, Fred Astaire, Spike Milligan, and even Peter Sellers. Wilder manages to infuse so many layers into Wonka with just a quick gesture or a look of the eye, lending the character a complicated internal/emotional life. Sometimes he’s kindly, sometimes he’s manic, sometimes he seems lonely, but always he’s unpredictable and whimsical, and there’s a constant undercurrent of madness there too. All of this works to give the film a strangely electric energy, and to take the edge off a remarkably dark storyline, as one by one the children prove undeserving of the magic Wonka tries to offer them. Dahl was apparently displeased by the film’s deviations from his original story, but critics greeted the film warmly, and by the mid-1980s it had grown in appreciation with audiences to become an all-time classic. The film’s memorable songs and score—written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, with direction by Walter Scharf—were even nominated for an Academy Award.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex 35 IIC and Mitchell BNCR cameras with spherical lenses, and was finished photochemically for release at the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. For the film’s 50th anniversary debut on Ultra HD, Warner has scanned the original camera negative in native 4K, completed a digital restoration, and graded the image for high dynamic range (HDR10 only is available on the disc). The result is a marked improvement on any previous home presentation, with a significant uptick in resolution, more refined texturing, and a dramatic boost in color fidelity and saturation. The film has always had a uniquely 1970s Kodachrome appearance, but its palette has never looked better than it does here, with vibrant hues that practically burst off the screen. Highlights are very bold—Charlie’s much-coveted Golden Ticket now has a genuinely eye-reactive metallic gleam—while shadows are truly dark yet retain good detail. Grain is medium-light to medium but organic. A few shots are optically soft as photographed, as are the film’s optically-printed titles and transitions, but on the whole this is a beautiful UHD presentation of a beloved catalog title.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format, carried over from the previous Blu-ray edition. It’s a solid mix, medium-wide up front, with light atmospherics and music drawn into the surround channels. Dialogue is clear and largely clean, though it does retain much of the monophonic character of its original recording. Music is tonally full, with excellent fidelity but modest low end. Additional audio options include French, Italian, Castilian Spanish, and Latin Spanish mixes all in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. (Unfortunately, the original theatrical English 2.0 mono mix is not included.) Optional subtitles are available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, Italian for the Deaf, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, Latin Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish.
Warner’s 4K disc includes the following special feature:
- Audio Commentary with the Wonka Kids (Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, Michael Bollner, and Denise Nickerson)
The package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray (the same disc released previously) which also includes the commentary and adds the following extras:
- Pure Imagination: The Story of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (SD – 30:25)
- Vintage 1971 Featurette (SD – 4:02)
- Sing-Along Songs (SD – for 4 songs from the film – 8:12 in all)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 3:11)
All of these extras are carried over from the 2001 30th Anniversary Edition DVD release of the film. It’s not a lot of material to be sure, especially by today’s standards. But both Pure Imagination and the audio commentary are a genuine treat, each produced by our old friend J.M. Kenny. The documentary includes interview comments with Stuart and Wilder, producer David Wolper, and all five of the Wonka kids. There’s also a Digital copy code on a paper insert in the packaging.
Not only has Willy Wonka come to be considered a musical classic by cinephiles, it was among the first films released on DVD during the format’s debut year back in 1997, so longtime home video enthusiasts retain a fondness for it. The good news is that Wonka holds up every bit as well today as it did in the late 1970s, and Warner’s new 4K release not only improves upon the previous Blu-ray edition, it presents the film looking better than ever before at home. Fans should definitely not miss this chance to experience the upgrade. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt