The Chocolate Factory loses its captain

I don’t care what age you are, anytime you’ve opened a candy bar wrapper to unveil your chocolaty treat, a small part of you held the tiniest glimmer of hope that something else would show itself first.

A golden ticket.

That split-second of anticipation and wonder was instilled in us at a young age, when we first watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The 1971 film is unarguably a classic, transcending time and genre. And that’s because it doesn’t really matter when it was filmed. With only its grainy video quality betraying its age, the movie is so standalone in story and imagination that it could have been filmed anywhere in any year.

It’s impossible not to be immediately transported back to your childhood when thinking of Willy Wonka, if only for a second.

We were compelled by the adventure, the vivid imagery and the eccentric characters, led by none other than Willy Wonka himself, played by Gene Wilder.

Willy Wonka

Gene Wilder passed today at age 83. For many people, especially the younger generation, his death likely didn’t cause too much of a shock. He hadn’t really been in a notable film in more than 20 years.

But for most, hearing his name brought us immediately back to the Chocolate Factory.

No one else could have played Willy Wonka. Wilder’s alluring portrayal was marked by an endearing, soft-spoken demeanor, accompanied by a dark and mysterious quality. So much so that for some, the thought of being inside the Chocolate Factory might produce a hint of the shivers.

And I speak from experience. As a child, I had a mortal fear of the Oompa Loompas. I actually left the room whenever they emerged on the screen, with their bright orange make up and clown-like green hair. The way they sang in low-pitched, cultlike unison gave me the creeps.

But no matter your prevailing memories, there’s no doubt that the movie was iconic. And Gene Wilder is not a reason for that, but the reason.

Don’t believe me that nobody else could have captured the magic of Willy Wonka like Wilder did? See Tim Burton’s 2005 monstrosity of a remake starring Johnny Depp. For lack of a better description, Depp — a fantastic actor in his own rite although his best days are behind him — portrayed Willy Wonka so high-pitched and creepy that he came off as a pedophile.

Trust me. Don’t watch that version.

I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen much else starring Mr. Wilder, the most shameful omission being Blazing Saddles. If there was ever a time to use the red-faced, blushing emoji to portray my embarrassment, it’s now.

But I think Jim Carrey summed it up best in a tweet earlier today: “Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form. If there’s a heaven he has a Golden Ticket.”

If we’ve learned anything from Gene Wilder, especially in an age where every website tells us what we need to eat if we want to live long and happily, it’s to never stop eating chocolate. Never lose your anticipation when peeling open that wrapper.

Never stop chasing your golden ticket.

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