[Update: I re-watched Willy Wonka three years after writing this post and have a few more thoughts. I don’t know why I assumed it took place in England; it must have been the Dickensian last names that threw me, along with the quintessentially English schoolteacher. But none of the other kids (or Charlie’s family members for that matter) have English accents. I can’t pin down exactly where the story is supposed to take place, but I guess it must be somewhere in America, which makes Wonka’s nationality less intrusive. (I understand it was filmed in Germany, but that doesn’t help explain the plethora of American accents.)
Second, I want to back away a little bit on my harsh judgment of Wonka’s motivations for turning the factory over to Charlie at the end of the film. It’s still weird to put a kid in charge of a factory, even in the teeth of the planet-sized whimsical license the viewers are forced to take on, but I want to back off a little because of the way Wilder delivered those lines. He was sweet and adoring and saw everything in Charlie that he thought had gone missing in the world, a message more true today than ever. It’s just that one phrase that still throws me: that he wants a child to run the factory because only a child would do things the way he wanted. I still think that’s a weird way to put it, and the last thing the character of Wonka needed was another thing that made him weird.
And I was a little harsh on Grandpa Joe’s miraculous physical recovery. Clearly it was meant as a metaphor that having something to be excited about, like a golden ticket, is enough to turn your shitty life around, which is right out of the good old American songbook. So I’ll give that one a pass.
And it was because he had a golden ticket! Who can write a review of Willy Wonka without giving enormous credit to the songwriting, especially the performances, and this goes double for Diana Sowle and her unforgettable performance of Cheer Up Charlie. I must have glossed over it last time, because watching it last night gave me all of the feels. OK, end of update.]
So I just watched Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) for the first time since I was like ten, and I have a few bones to pick. When I was a kid I was too distracted by the spectacle of the thing to consider the many absurdities of the plot, but now I’m all grown up. And I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff; I’m willing to suspend disbelief with the best of them and go along with the premise of a misanthropic chocolatier who’s opening the gates of his mysterious factory for the first time in years to let in five lucky winners. It was the tiny absurdities that caught my ire.
First off, who can believe that Charlie’s grandfather can burst into song and dance just minutes after getting out of bed for the first time in twenty years? (Also, really? Twenty years? Not even to poop?) We also have to get past the idea of four old people living in one bed, which I guess is whimsical enough to inspire the viewer not to care too much, a balancing act that only partially succeeds as we move through the rest of the film.
I got stuck for a while on the ridiculousness of Slugworth’s seeming ability to be anywhere in the world at once (he’s in England! Germany! America!) to greet each ticket winner within minutes of their find, but then I remembered that he worked for Wonka as a kind of anti-spy, and probably planted the tickets himself. (What I really couldn’t get past was the idea of a candy maker named Slugworth. This is maybe an example of author Roald Dahl trying too hard to be Dickens.)
Speaking of Dickens, this is a thoroughly English story. Why the hell did they pick an American to play Willy Wonka? Gene Wilder doesn’t even attempt an English accent, nor does Johnny Depp in the 2005 remake—so the character of Wonka must be American. Why?
Then we come to the problem of Charlie’s greed. This is an important snag, one that sticks out like a huge swollen thumb. In fact, it seems almost put there on purpose to prove some point about the difficulties of human grace, but it still feels like an impossible barrier to the spiritual utopia we are encouraged to embrace as the Wonkavator ascends to heaven under the closing credits. (Seriously, where were they supposed to have been going?) Charlie is just as horrible as all the other kids! We get one peachy song after another from the Oompa-Loompas as the bad kids are sucked away into their fates after succumbing to one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins, but nothing when Charlie sneaks a gulp of Fizzy Lifting Drink with his grandfather. (Yes, Wonka reproaches them at the end of the tour, but it feels tacked on.) And what about the time Charlie found a coin in the gutter and used it to buy a candy bar which he shoved down his gullet so fast, the candy man had to tell him to slow down? Does this mean Charlie would be just as gluttonous as Augustus Gloop had he been born to a richer family? Or maybe he was just starving because he was poor. I guess I could buy that. But still—we have a second example of Charlie blowing right past his supposed innocent sense of wonder and behaving greedily.
Of course Charlie’s not all bad. It’s his return of the Everlasting Gobstopper that seals the deal on Wonka’s end, and one of the nicer moments of the film. Maybe Charlie’s transgressions are put there intentionally, as a way to make his act of selflessness seem all the richer. (Remember, he could have turned his back on Wonka and made his entire family rich forever.) And why was Wonka so concerned with finding an un-greedy child to take his place as the leader of the Wonka empire? So they wouldn’t eat all of the candy? I guess that would make sense, buuuuut…
Surprise! It turns out Wonka is an evil psychopath. It’s Wonka’s confession to Charlie near the end that forces any sense of good and evil too fall utterly apart, and is truly the strangest plot twist in the entire film. It turns out that he wants a child to take his place not because he wants someone pure of heart to helm the empire, but because adults would ruin it by not doing it right. (“A grownup would want to do everything his own way, not mine.”) So grownups are problematic because they want to do things their own way. Fine, but isn’t this exactly what Wonka himself is guilty of doing? Wonka makes himself into a kind of god by saying this, and it’s not all too flattering of Charlie: “So I picked you because I’m pretty sure you’ll just do what I say.” Is Charlie supposed to be some kind of Christ figure, so simple and pure in his lack of sin that he will carry out Wonka’s utopian vision without question? It’s like this whole thing was a twisted reality TV show where the finalist was the least hoggish of the bunch (not necessarily the sweetest), and—paradoxically—wins everything. But no touchie-touchie! And don’t think for yourself. Or something. And who else but a truly deranged lunatic would take the temperate Oompa-Loompas and force them to work in the most lucrative candy company in the world? (Remember, he “rescued” them, so they have nowhere else to go.)
We’re led to believe that Wonka is an overgrown kid, a hard-bitten cynic, and a jolly prankster all at once. He somehow lives outside this spectrum of innocence and indulgence, which is maybe why he wants to find someone who knows of the Seven Deadly Sins but isn’t wholly corrupted by them. (Wilder’s deadpan delivery of Wonka’s “Wait… Stop…” lines just before each bad egg gets carted away away speaks more to his corrupt heart than a closed factory ever will.) This sounds nice, but it doesn’t hold water when we remember that Wonka just made like a bazillion dollars selling chocolates for his stupid contest. (Hence the early retirement?) Yes, it was supposedly to find that one magical kid to take over for him, but why then just sell five tickets? Someone as cynical as Wonka surely knows that it would take at least 10,000 kids to find one good egg. (Someone, perhaps, to be just mean enough to his guests by terrifying them on a psychedelic boat ride from hell? Where does that fall on the moral spectrum?) What’s more, we know from the very beginning of the film that Wonka is a greedy fuck—he kept his magical candyland all to himself for years. Then he challenges each contest winner to be the least selfish? Wonka’s a hypocrite, too.
Of the three, I’m led to believe that Wonka’s true nature is a jolly prankster with zero faith in humanity. The whole thing is a cruel joke. It has to be! Who turns his insanely profitable empire run by a slave race of persecuted minorities over to the least worst of five random children? Satan, that’s who. I’m pretty sure Wonka just wants to watch the world burn. He’s convinced himself that humanity is a lost cause, and that greed is the only thing that matters. His private candy paradise drove him insane, and now he wants to find the child with the purest heart and drive him insane. To pay it forward. Maybe this is why the character of Wonka is American.
I know the ’70s was a strange time for cinema, but this plot feels like it’s from another dimension and I give up. I bet the problem is that I’m a grownup, and grownups ruin everything… but we still love chocolate.