Why Gene Wilder's Performance of 'Pure Imagination' Is the Most Magical Food Scene in Movie History

Gene Wilder‘s portrayal of Willy Wonka has become one of the most iconic roles in movie history for a reason. His balance between frazzled, erratic — indeed, unhinged — yet simultaneously charming and righteous is a nuance it’s hard to imagine any other actor pulling off (sorry, Johnny Depp).

There is perhaps no scene that better captures this magic he created than his performance of “Pure Imagination.” In the time since the world learned of Wilder’s passing, you’ve likely seen it pop up on your Facebook feed more than once. It’s one of those movie moments that becomes an extension of an actor, a scene that is immediately evoked when you hear his name.

Of course, it cannot be downplayed that this first glimpse into a world where everything is made of candy played a major role in captivating audiences of children. For those of us who grew up watching the movie, these food images are ingrained in our memory.


Indeed, there were many factors that went into making the scene so perfect. For one, the children in the movie had never seen the set before — so their reactions were pretty similar to how most of our 10-year-old selves would act in a room in which candy canes and giant gummy bears grow on trees.

Wilder has also pointed out that “about a third” of the candy in the was actually edible, including the iconic chocolate river, which was made using real chocolate. (The teacup that Wilder chows down on at the end of the scene, for the record, was not — it was made out of wax, which he had to chew on until the take was over.)

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And yet, looking back, it’s Wilder’s performance that is the driving force behind the nostalgia. His vocals are at once haunting and comforting, just like his character. It’s this dichotomy that made him such an iconic actor in all of his roles, and made Willy Wonka not only the greatest food movie of all time, but one of the greatest movies of all time, period.

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