I must have watched this movie scores of times as a child. I was born the very year it came out so by the time I was old enough to see and enjoy it, it was on cable. My grandparents videotaped it and my brother and I would watch it regularly while staying at their house after school or in the summer.
Watching it now as more of an adult (while I am 29, I have some sort of mental block which prevents me from thinking of myself as an actual adult) I realized the extent to which this movie is simultaneously perfect for and completely inappropriate for children.
Most of this movie deals with the skewed priorities of the central characters. Mike is a television glutton, Augustus is a culinary glutton, Violet is a gum glutton and Viruca is a materialistic glutton. Even Charlie, in his words, “wants it more then anyone”. He could be referred to as a hope glutton. Each has refused to, or not been told to by parents, put the needs of others above their own.
Wish fulfillment is part of every child’s life. “I want it now!” can be heard from every toddler in the free world. Even the adults who have refused to grow up adhere to this dictum. Without this attitude in the hearts and minds of consumers everywhere everything from McDonald’s restaurants to Mercedes dealerships would be going out of business left and right. Even the adults in “Wonka” are not immune from this. One woman has to have time to decide between the safety of her husband and her case of Wonka Bars.
The majority of the adults in “Wonka” are not presented as greedy or desirous of worldly things so much as they are as enablers of their children. Mike TV’s parents gladly serve him TV dinners so they don’t have to tell their son to come to the dinner table. His dad even says Mike need only be 12 to get a real gun. Veruca’s father shuts down his factory to have his employees unwrapping candy bars. Augustus’s father eats a microphone. Violet’s father is so busy trying to shill his car dealership he barely notices what’s going on.
Interesting, it is only Mrs. Gloup that shows any signs of attempting to correct or moderate her child’s behavior. Twice she is heard telling Augustus to stop eating and “save some room for later” – once outside the chocolate factory and once while he is drinking from the chocolate river. It’s not until the other children have been put in harms way that the others perk up their ears to the ramifications of their children’s actions.
So what role does Willy Wonka himself have? As portrayed by Gene Wilder, Wonka seems to have the attitude “If they don’t know better, who am I to try and teach them?”. On more than one occasion he can muster no more than mock outrage at the fate of each child. “Stop. Wait. Come Back.” He is a man with devilry in his heart.
This stands out in stark contrast to how our expectations have been setup in the first part of the movie. When the candy store clerk sings about “The Candy Man”, he sings of the benevolent, caring, almost child-like ideal of a man that those in thrall to his products can admire. What we are given instead is someone who, in addition to enjoying the odd harmless practical joke, munches on a candy while a boy is stuck in a tube and hopes the suspense lasts.
I’ve so far not dealt with how Charlie’s family, and in particular Grandpa Joe, are portrayed. This is simply because I had the hardest time with this myself and I suspect some others might as well.
Grandpa Joe is supposed to be the kindly loving grandparent we all did or wish we had. After all, he sacrificed his tobacco money to buy Charlie a bar of chocolate. In reality, he fits into all the above characteristics of the enablers and spoilers but with even more against him. When presented with the reasons why Charlie did not win the contest, he screams at Wonka that he is an “inhuman monster”. Unless he is a sociopath, he must know that drinking the Fizzy-Lifting drinks (an action prompted by Grandpa Joe himself) was wrong and should automatically disqualify Charlie from the grand prize. Instead he presents the new-age philosophy of “But I want it and the rules are completely irrelevant”. Consequences, it would seem, are only for those who didn’t win.
So what are we left with at the end: the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy. Despite his wrongdoings and mistakes, Charlie is given the grand prize. “Yes, the chocolate but so much more” – the factory itself, which has become as much a character in the movie as the people themselves. He is told that he can remove his family from squalor and move in immediately.
There is one point that I hadn’t noticed until my most recent watching of the movie, though. At the end, when Wonka is telling Charlie why he engineered the golden ticket contest, he says he had to find someone who would do things his way. Wonka’s way. I have been wondering ever since what happened when Charlie fell out of line during the apprenticeship. Was he ever exiled for a time or sent to his room without dinner? Wonka seems to be giving him a pretty clear mandate on how he wants things done. So Charlie’s wish fulfillment comes at a price – he can have a view of paradise in return for servitude.
I’m not sure if kids get this final message that ultimately the prize comes as a result of hard work and sacrifice. A moral compass which accurately, not subjectively, discerns between right and wrong is an essential tool in order achieve success on a spiritual, personal or professional level. Despite his misbehavior it’s Charlie’s sacrifice of the Everlasting Gobstopper that shows him to be worthy. He could have sold it to Slugworth, but his conscience knew that, whatever his own fate might be, doing so would be wrong and a breach of the trust he had entered into with Mr. Wonka. Occasionally, even fairly often, you will have to humble yourself to get where you want to be.