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Explaining the Boat Scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory


Who here was terrified by the boat scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? In a film where child after child brushes with death, only to survive “off-screen”. With foods so dangerous to eat they blow up your whole body, and a tall strange man trying to coerce kids into stealing secrets for him in alleyways. With claustrophobic tubes that trap, and all run by a madman, in this film, the only really scary thing is a boat ride.

The scene is infamous and has horrified kids for decades now. The Tour of the factory moves swiftly along after losing Augustus Gloop, and the party take their seats as the Oompa Loompa's row them down a dark tunnel. Willy Wonka, already starting to make some of them nervous with his demeanour, insists that they row faster, and the passengers begin to panic. Lights and images flash around them, of bugs and eyes and a chicken being decapitated (making this one of the rare mainstream films depicting the on-screen death of a real animal), and Wonka begins to recite a shamanistic poem, which turns into a loud chant, and finally a shriek: “There's no earthly way of knowing, which direction we are going... ARE THE FIRES OF HELL A GLOWING, IS THE GRISLY REAPER MOWING, YES, THE DANGER MUST BE GROWING!” Violet Beauregarde said it best; “What is this, a freak-out?”

Everything about this scene, from Gene Wilder's slowly mounting delivery of the ominous lines, to the looks of panic on everybody's faces, to the very nature of this sort of satanic corruption of the cheerful tunes the factory dispenses otherwise, is pure nightmare fuel, and nothing like the rest of the film. Another thing that makes the sequence seem out of place is how abruptly it ends- the boat just stops, and no one brings it up again. So how come it's in the film?

Before we ask why anyone wanted it in the film, it's good to ask how the scene made it into the final cut in the first place, without anyone raising concerns about appealing to the target demographic of candy-loving kids. Well, Willy Wonka was made on a shoe-string budget by a rag-tag group of misfit film-makers, funded by a confectionary company to promote their upcoming Quaker Oats ‘Wonka Bars'. For the record, this promotion was a failure, because by the time the film was out, Wonka Bars were being recalled and altered because they melted at room temperature all over store shelves. Under these circumstances, the filmmakers experienced an unprecedented lack of studio interference, so they could do mostly whatever they wanted. Some of the makers of the film, released in 1971, had been stewing in the psychedelic late 60's, and probably channeled their experiences with bad trips (freak-outs, as they were known) into the scene, because there was room for it, and especially because it was cheap. It's hard to say no when you need to film the tunnel from the book, and someone comes up with an idea that only needs stock footage, coloured lights and back projection.

On a story level, Wonka seems to have a sinister mystery about him which keeps us on our toes, played up heavily by the incomparable Gene Wilder, who was attracted by the conman quality he felt the character could have. He even suggested that Wonka be introduced stumbling with a cane, only to reveal it was a ruse. The boat scene is the ultimate extra layer to Wonka's potential psychopathy. I mean, the boat has the perfect amount of seats for everybody, how did he know Gloop and his mother wouldn't be joining them? We really have no idea what he'll do next.

Some seem to think the scary boat ride is one of Wonka's tests, to see if there are any kids too fragile to end up running his factory. Doubtful. If the film, or more accurately the original novel, wanted to illustrate that, there would have been an extra terrified tot, who'd wet himself, or jump into the water to escape, and be serenaded by the Oompa Loompas as he floated on his way. The only element that seems to support this appears to be that Charlie and Grandpa Joe are the only captives who manage to enjoy the ride.

There are, as there always seem to be, some fun fan theories. One suggests the tunnel is a form of deterrent for thieves, who would have to make it through the tunnel to get to the factories' secrets. Who would brave all that for Slugworth? Not to mention how difficult it must be to navigate to the invention room in the pitch black.

What's appreciable about the scene today, outside of it being a very well judged mix of the unsettling and silly that introduces an element of intrigue at a junction into the film, is that it is so indelible. No-one forgets the scene, and whilst the images that flash swirl around, and out of order, everyone remembers how it felt. It's irreplaceable, especially in a kids' film today (though Coraline is sort of if the boat scene were the entire film), and that's why the remake didn't even try. If we celebrate this classic for it's incredible imagination when it comes to whimsy, we ought to celebrate it for its inventive shock too.