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Gene Wilder sings Pure Imagination in AT&T Commercial
Happy fifth birthday again!

I originally wrote this for TV Squad last year, but since TV Squad no longer exists and the video is no longer available at its new home on AOL|Huffington Post, I’m posting it again for everyone who’s emailed me about it.

I love this commercial, because it so clearly captures the magic and sweetness of childhood. Let’s face it — as we get older, life gets hard and messy and complicated and nerve-wracking and unpredictable.

But it can also be very joyful, and the joy is usually hidden in little moments that make you go, yeah, I remember now. Life can be filled with wonder and possibilities and dreams.

That’s what this AT&T ‘Rethink’ commercial does for me. I can be doing a million other things, but when Gene Wilder’s voice starts singing ‘Pure Imagination’ from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I stop whatever I’m doing and become transfixed by those child-like drawings springing to life in a busy city. That’s exactly what AT&T wants me to do, and it’s working, so good for them.

It’s a simple message: Think back to your childhood, to the days that knew no boundaries, when anything was possible and your dreams could take you anywhere. The commercial begins with a cloud emerging from a window and raining down on a smiling flower that grows into an industrial area as a rainbow sweeps across the sky.

Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder and Peter Ostrum in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory | Paramount

A happy creature clomps through the streets, and notice those little figures in the foreground on the windowsill — two retro robots and a string of simple train cars. It’s really subtle, the sort of thing you only see for a second and yet, it takes you right back to childhood in your subconscious. A green sea monster dives through the streets, a giant robot peeks into a laundromat, an alien wanders by, spotted fish paddle through an intersection, and a train whizzes around the corner. All happy, all joyful. Until…

The train smashes into an imaginary tunnel. Dreams are dashed! Creativity dies! Imagination is thwarted! And Gene Wilder’s voice sings, “Want to change the world? There’s nothing … to it …” Only we know that’s not the case because life is hard! We can’t change anything! That’s a ridiculous notion! Then all the paper figures become actual paper and start drifting sadly to the ground.

Then we see that poor guy on the bench. Man, he looks dejected. The life’s been sucked right out of him, and all he needs is one little nudge to jump off that ledge and end it all. He’s got his suit and tie on, his office stuff beside him, take-out coffee on the ground, long-ish hair that’s neatly parted and combed. He’s conformed to society and its awful, creativity-sapping crap, day in and day out. The narrator begins, “Remember when you were five? And anything was possible?”

The guy picks up what I presume to be a cell phone — although we don’t get a good look at it — and the narrator says, “Happy fifth birthday again.” Gene Wilder sings, “Come with me … and you’ll be … in a world of pure imagination … ” as the guy begins to smile, a light shines on him, and the alien paper figure springs back to life and peeks over the building.

Ahhhh … creativity saved. Thank you, Gene Wilder. Thank you, AT&T.

Read about how Gene Wilder scored the role of Willy Wonka on AMC TV’s excellent blog.

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