Saturday, September 3, 2016

On the Homefront: Thanks for the "Wild" Times

If there is one thing most parents can agree on it is that watching certain movies with our children can be one of life's simple joys. Movies capture our imagination and entertain us. They can teach or they can simply make us think. They can make us laugh and they can make us cry.

I believe I was in second grade when during our English lesson for a few straight days, my teacher brought out the TV cart/VCR combo and my classmates and I enjoyed the classic film, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
That movie, made 45 years (!) ago, still engages all who watch it, and it is still referenced in modern pop culture. Part of the reason is simply that it is a good movie based off an even better book by one of the world's best children's authors ever.
The other part of the reason is Gene Wilder, whose portrayal of Willy Wonka is the standard bearer for eccentric corporate owners.
Wilder's Wonka has become the face of numerous Internet memes thanks to technology, but without the success of the timeless movie, I doubt it would have ever been a meme.
I've watched the 1971 version of Willy Wonka with my kids, and we always enjoy it. Whether it's Augustus Gloop clogging the chocolate tube, or Violet Beauregard turning into a human blueberry, or Veruca Salt being a total brat, or Mike Tee Vee acting as the precursor to tech-obsessed kids of today, we always find reasons to laugh.
The oompa-loompas and their music is timeless, and Charlie Bucket's dream fulfillment is always something that makes us smile.
But through it all is Willy Wonka himself, and Wilder embodied the character.
He was spooky. He was quirky. He was funny. He was gracious. He was, in a sense, subtly wild.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory now appears all over the Internet when people create lists of movies that "children must see" by the time they reach certain ages.
However, for as timeless as the movie has become, it is also ageless. As parents, if we're watching a movie with our kids that we watched at their age, it takes us back. Certain films carry with them a different feeling of nostalgia that helps keep us grounded in an all-too-fast world.
For instance, several weeks ago while I was eating lunch I turned on the television to find something to watch for a few minutes. I found E.T., recognized there was less than half an hour left, and watched until the end.
As Elliott and his brother and their friends rode their bikes to escape the big bad scary government, and as the focus switched to E.T. who realized he could make them all fly, I found myself getting chills. Maybe it was the scene, maybe it was the iconic John Williams score, but it didn't matter. I was instantly there with the boys and the alien, flying over the treetops.
"I saw this in theaters 34 years ago, and I still get chills at this scene," I said to myself that afternoon.
My son, who is slowly developing his sense of sarcasm, remarked, "Why? It makes you feel old?"
"No," I replied. "It makes me feel young."
That is what Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka does for me, and I'm sure countless others.
There are other movies we watch with our children. Go-to quotable classics like "The Princess Bride," or "Star Wars," or "Toy Story," or "Home Alone," or "The Goonies," just to name a handful.
In time, I'll likely add Mel Brooks masterpieces like "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" to the mix. My kids aren't old enough to watch the former yet, but the latter may be set for viewing this fall, at least as far as my son is concerned.
Both have something in common: Gene Wilder.
Sure, he's not Willy Wonka in either one. However, in all three classics he has a unique character that he plays, and he did each role with such a vigor that he left the world an incredible legacy.
I know he did more in his career and his life. I know he was more than just an actor.
But I'll let others discuss what else he did. I choose to remember him as Willy Wonka, or the Waco Kid, or Dr. Fronkensteen.
And I choose, for now, to have my kids enjoy his version of Willy Wonka. For it is he who spoke words that should inspire us all to try for things in life.
"We are the music makers...and we are the dreamers of dreams."
Fare thee well, Gene. My kids and I salute you.

Howard Balaban is a stay-at-home-dad and a movie fan who hopes Simon Pegg's version of Ogden Morrow holds a candle to Wilder's Wonka in 2018's "Ready Player One."