Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three…
That’s what Willy Wonka asked us to do before revealing his magical world of gummy bear trees and chocolate waterfalls. Gene Wilder’s dazzling performance as the quirky candy-maker remains one of my strongest childhood memories, despite the movie being released nearly 20 years before I was born. Like most people, when I found out about his passing (opens in new tab) earlier this week, my mind drifted to my favourite memory of him, and that’s the scene where he sings Pure Imagination in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
From the moment Charlie ran free into the fantastical land hidden behind the factory’s closed doors, I was filled with an amazing sense of wonder. After all, what would a child love more than a land made of sweets? To me, mushrooms made of candy, and treats hanging from branches, was honestly the best thing that could have ever happened, and it really didn’t matter that it wasn’t real because I was still there. But as wonderful as that ‘garden’ was, it’s not the reason that scene had such an impact on me. It’s the song Gene Wilder sings.
While the children and their parents attack everything in sight, Wonka walks around singing about what you can accomplish with just your imagination. To childhood me it was beautiful and mysterious, and it seemed to confirm everything I felt - that imagination was the most powerful thing in the world - but it also made me sad. I thought it was just because it was a slow song, and in my childish naivety slow songs equalled sad songs. But when I grew up a bit and watched it again, I realised it’s because Willy Wonka himself is actually sad.
Here’s a character who’s not only managed to create the impossibly wonderful world he imagined in his head, but has also made a successful business out of it, and yet, it doesn’t make him happy. Watch the scene again and you’ll see him wandering around his garden apparently revelling in the children’s delight as he knocks sweets from trees and sips out of a daffodil cup, but he takes no real joy in it. He never smiles. He’s never really happy. He has the look of someone who’s managed to gain the thing he thought he wanted most in the world, only to discover that it doesn’t mean a thing.
And that’s what made Gene Wilder such a captivating performer. He managed to convey this incredible, beautiful thing to a 9-year-old girl and still leave her wondering years later why Willy Wonka didn’t feel the same way as her. He told her changing the world was nothing, that her imagination would set her free... but she still noticed that it hadn’t done that for him. It would have been so easy to turn this character into someone who hated imagination because it hadn’t saved him, but I knew that Willy Wonka still believed what he was saying. That even though it hadn’t worked for him, there was no way he was going to take his world from anyone else or tell a child not to dream.
I could list his many, many other achievements - Wonka was just one - but to me he’ll always be that amazing, incredible, chocolate-maker who couldn’t quite bring a smile to his lips, but still gave me everything I ever dreamed of.