"The one thing he longed for more than anything else was . . . CHOCOLATE."
So begins the candy-coated odyssey of Charlie Bucket, an impoverished child who wins the opportunity of a lifetime in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," perhaps the most famous of author Roald Dahl's many books. In a sense it's one of the books most suited to children -- we have a doughty little hero, giant gobs of chocolate, and the ever-eccentric Willy Wonka taking us through his magically bizarre factory.
Charlie Bucket's family is so woefully impoverished that they live in a tiny house with only one bed and barely any food; Charlie himself is regularly tortured by his love of chocolate and his inability to afford any, except for a tiny bar on his birthday. This is especially unpleasant because they live right near the world's most amazing chocolate factory, owned by the legendary Willy Wonka, who fired his workers and temporarily closed up his factory when his competitors started stealing his secrets.
How amazing is Willy Wonka? "Mr Willy Wonka can make marshmallows that taste of violets, and rich caramels that change colour every ten seconds as you suck them, and little feathery sweets that melt away deliciously the moment you put them between your lips." And so on, and so on, and so on -- every magically weird sweet thing is made by Wonka. Then Willy Wonka declares that he's going to let five children -- who buy the chocolate bars with the Golden Ticket inside -- tour his factory.
Against the odds, Charlie finds one of the coveted Tickets, along with four other children with massive personality defects: a compulsive gum-chewer, a TV addict, a food addict and a spoiled brat. And on the appointed day, Willy Wonka sweeps the children up on a magical tour of his bizarre factory, with chocolate rivers, a glass elevator, marshmallow pillows, candy plants and doll-sized Oompa-Loompas. But to some of the children (read: ones who aren't Charlie), the factory contains untold perils.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is perhaps the best possible exhibition of Roald Dahl's talents as a storyteller -- he wrote the sort of uniquely British stories that were gleefully dark, quite exaggerated and even silly, yet somehow it never broke your suspension of disbelief. So he was perfectly suited to a story about a whimsical candymaker and his equally enchanting -- yet extremely dangerous -- factory full of strange and wonderful things.
And Dahl's writing style is all those things, writing in a spare but whimsical style that highlights both the dark (the crushing poverty of the Bucket clan) and the whimsical (just about everything in the factory). And he sails through the legendary misfortunes of the various greedy kids with the air of a giggling deity, much like Wonka himself ("My goodness, she is a bad nut after all. Her head must have sounded quite hollow").
Speaking of which, Wonka is a delightful character -- he's incredibly weird and charmingly upbeat, and has Dahl's love of disposing of horrible characters in ways that they deserve (such as his teasing of Mrs. Gloop over her son's fudgy fate). Charlie is a slightly bland character, but he's still quite endearing, being rather mature for his age and thoroughly good-hearted... and so unsurprisingly, the other kids are delightfully loathsome caricatures, which makes it incredibly fun to see them get their candy-coated comeuppance.
Whether you like candy or not, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a sweetly delicious experience -- when you aren't entertained by Dahl's whimsical ideas, you're gleefully enjoying the darker shades of chocolate. Absolutely whipple-scrumptious.