Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) lives in poverty (of means but definitely not of spirit) with his mother and four grandparents. On his way home from school one day, his paper route takes him past the gate of the town's mysterious and reclusive, but highly-regarded candy-maker, Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder). As Charlie peers through the gates, a tinker walks by, telling Charlie that 'nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out.
Later that night, Charlie discusses this with his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson). Joe explains that the man Charlie saw was right. Many years before, other candy makers (especially one Oskar Sluggworth) were sending spies into his factory to steal Wonka's amazing candy secrets. Finally, Mr Wonka locked the gates, and banished all his workers from the factory. Shortly after this, the factory started up, but no one knows who is making Wonka's candies now.
The next day at school, word spreads quickly that a contest has been launched, with five golden tickets hidden in five ordinary Wonka chocolate bars. The big prize is that those who find these tickets, will get to visit Mr Wonka's long-isolated factory for a free tour, and receive a lifetime supply of chocolate. The world then goes crazy, with Wonka candies being sold out at almost every store.
The first ticket is found by a gluttonous German boy, named Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner).
The second ticket is found by a spoiled little girl named Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), whose father utilized his peanut factory workers to open Wonka bars from dawn until dusk.
The third ticket is found by a girl named Violet Beauregarde (Denise Nickerson), who is an avid gum chewer, having chewed a piece of gum for three months straight to achieve a world record.
The fourth ticket is found by a boy named Mike TeeVee (Paris Themmen), who is obsessed with television, particularly programs regarding cowboys.
And no one notices a mysterious, trenchcoat-clad man (Gunter Meisner) always showing up whenever anyone claims a ticket.
While these children claim the tickets in turn, and while various adults go to absurd lengths to find the tickets on their own, old Joe uses his tobacco money to buy two Wonka bars, one at a time, for Charlie. Neither bar contains a ticket. But the bond between Charlie and Joe is all the stronger for that.
Finally the Paraguayan television network announces that an eccentric millionaire, living in the Andes, has claimed the fifth ticket. With (as everyone thinks) no more tickets to hunt for, the world gets back to normal. Charlie spends one night wandering about town thinking of the chance he missed, but is back at school the next day, doing his best to put it all behind him.
But the next morning, he finds a gold sovereign in a storm drain next to the candy shop. He fishes out the coin and goes in to buy some candy, including a regular Wonka bar. Then as he goes to claim his papers to start his route, he reads a stark headline: FIFTH TICKET FRAUD. While a crowd of adults is tsk-tsk-ing about the unmitigated gall that Paraguayan con artist showed, Charlie starts, very slowly, to unwrap the Wonka bar he bought. And what should he find within, but the fifth golden ticket!
Charlie's discovery electrifies the townfolk: one of their own has claimed the genuine fifth ticket! So his fanfare consists of holding it up and celebrating for about a minute or so with his paper-route customers and anyone who happens to be looking on--no big deal compared to the media hype that greeted the other children, but that doesn't matter. Not to Charlie. What matters is at last he will get a chance to walk into the factory that has mystified him all his life. (The ticket also entitles him to a lifetime supply of chocolate, but he doesn't think of that just then.)
But as he turns the corner, he runs into the very stranger who has insinuated himself into all the other celebrations (though Charlie, not being media-savvy, does not know this). The stranger introduces himself as Oskar Sluggworth and offers him stock certificates if he will quietly abstract from the factory a prototype of an Everlasting Gobstopper.
Charlie rushes the rest of the way home and announces his find. So great is the wonderful shock that Old Joe can actually get out of bed!
Charlie takes time to read the ticket's terms. Under them, the holder may bring one adult companion. Charlie selects Old Joe, who happily agrees.
The next morning, the town does put on a celebration, with a band, to see the opening of the factory door. Promptly at ten o'clock, the door opens. Out walks a man leaning heavily on a cane, and follows a pathway on the pavement. He gets to the end of the path, and leaves the cane behind, stuck into the ground. And then he leans over, and is about to fall...and finishes with a somersault.
This slightly crazy man is, of course, Willy Wonka. And that entrance sets the tone for the adventure that follows.
He calls all the ticket holders to step forward. Verruca Salt insists on showing up first, though hers was the second ticket. Augustus Gloop doesn't care about things like that, and neither do the other children.
Willy leads them all inside, where first he asks them all to sign a contract with print that starts out large and ends in being ultra-fine.
In the tour that follows, the children, one by one, fall victim to pranks that play upon their most profound weaknesses of character. Augustus Gloop, the glutton, falls into a river of chocolate and gets sucked up in an extractor. Violet, the rude gum-chewer, starts chewing on a prototype that is supposed to have all the taste of a three-course meal, and seems to turn into a gigantic blueberry. Verruca, the selfish ingrate, falls through an "egg-dicator" and down a garbage chute. Mike Teevee, the TV addict, goes through something like a television transmission and ends up reduced to about a twelfth of his normal size.
Charlie and Joe have not been immune. Shortly before the accident to Verruca, the two lag behind and steal "Fizzy Lifting Drinks" and end up floating up a chimney and risk running into an exhaust fan! They manage to burp their way down, and rejoin the others, thinking nothing of it. But at the end of the tour, Willy abruptly shuts himself in his office--which, when Charlie and Joe open the door, turns out to have furnishings sawn in half--half a clock, half a sink, half a table--and half a desk, where Wonka sits on half a chair. Joe diffidently asks about the lifetime supply of chocolate the ticket promised. Willy replies Charlie disqualified himself by breaking the contract. "You STOLE Fizzy Lifting Drinks!" he cries. "You BUMPED into the ceiling which now has to be washed and sterilized! So you get NOTHING! You LOSE! GOOD DAY, sir!"
All Joe can think of, is that Wonka has pulled a bait-and-switch. Now he encourages Charlie to let Oskar Sluggworth have the prototype Everlasting Gobstopper Wonka gave him earlier in the tour. But Charlie is having none of that. With consummate dignity and grace he approaches Willy one last time and sets the prototype on the half-desk next to Willy's left hand.
And Willy almost transforms. "You won! You WON!" he cries, reaching for Charlie to hug him. "Oh, I'm sorry to put you through this. Now I want you to meet someone." In walks Oskar Sluggworth--or rather, a Mr. Wilkinson, who is Willy's executive assistant!
Willy then asks Charlie and Joe to join him in one last thrill-ride: the Wonka-Vator, a turbocharged levitating craft with one button he has never pressed, and now encourages Charlie to press. That one button press sends the craft, and the three, to crash through the glass ceiling and to a height that commands a view of the factory and the town around it. Now Willy reveals his true purpose: he sent out the five golden tickets in the hope of recruiting a successor. And Charlie is the sole qualifying applicant. To make the deal sweeter, Willy encourages Charlie to move in at once, with all his family. Charlie enthusiastically accepts this ultimate award.
CommentariesThe original child actors, as adults, recorded a commentary track for the DVD edition of this title. Julie Dawn Cole (Verruca) developed a theory that Willy Wonka did not let those tickets fall at random. Instead, Mr. Wilkinson/"Oskar Sluggworth" deliberately placed those tickets with four children who could each use a lesson in humility, and with Charlie. Willy surely noticed Charlie all his life, and no doubt decided on him as his successor. But first he must test Charlie. Hence the other four contestants, who could never qualify, and the tour taking him conveniently past the Fizzy Lifting Drinks. Hence also how conveniently Charlie could find a gold sovereign in a storm drain, on the very morning he can read a banner headline exposing the Paraguayan claimant as a fraud.
The test, of course, was not whether Charlie would forgo the temptation. It was how he would handle rejection due to bait-and-switch. Charlie handled himself like a champion; hence his victory.