This is a story of an ordinary little boy named Charlie Bucket. He was not faster or stronger or more clever than other children. His family was not rich or powerful or well-connected. In fact, they barely had enough to eat.
Tim Burton’s masterpiece Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) is only a remake of Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) in name only. The film is really an ingenious and wholly independent adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. In fact it is difficult to believe, watching Burton’s film, that the depressive auteur ever saw the original. If it the case that he did, it is still yet a miracle how he conjured a remake as original as the one that has prevailed.
The first 50 seconds: chaos vs order
The film begins with perhaps the most majestic first 50 seconds of any in cinematic history. Here, the two central forces of the film are introduced. First is the force of choas, resembled in the fog and smoke, accompanied by a quirky music track that awakens the unconscious, evoking images of a thousand colours, all swirled about, fluid throughout, like vivid paint. Second is the force of order, intonated by the repeating and expectant score, triumphant as the central smokestack calls to mind images so totalising and uniform they could only possibly come from one time, the time of the Second World War.
The enchantment, something out of a Harry Potter film, leads us into the protected walls of the factory, lending reference to the monotonous and robotic motions of labour in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The machines begin to dance, before each chocolate bar is saved by its own balloon-adorned platter, a remarkable artefact of the individuality and inalienable dignity of the single Wonka bar. An analogous testament is afforded to music director Danny Elfman, as the music rises again on appearance of his name. Then comes the extraordinary human intervention of Wonka’s God-like right hand. He sneaks into the perfect procession, with speed and excitement, the laying of the five Golden tickets. The impatient factory line then continues in motion, obliging with the rest of the work.
We are then treated to the full view of the factory, but only after being given just a taste of its international and military grade-like remit. The flower shaped out in the snow by the wheels of the vans caps off the thorough-going order, uniformity, and efficiency of an otherwise unremarkable factory. It is what lies inside, we later see, that really matters.
Then comes the omniscient narrator, whose confidence and expectancy in retelling the whole story of ‘a boy named Charlie Bucket‘ resembles that of God’s foretold knowledge of Eve’s submission to the serpant, and with that, the whole story of humankind. ‘Charlie Bucket was the luckiest boy in the entire world’, muses the narrator, but ‘he just didn’t know it yet’.
The scene is subsequently set: the chocolate factory consists of the heart of the town, while Bucket’s home, in direct line to the factory, stands firmly in counterpoise, an enduring testament to the notion chaos sees through order, though order is not always conscious of chaos. Hence Charlie hikes on his endeavour to call forth order from choas, to create in his own home the most accurate microcosm of the factory there is. Just as the beginning tune reawakened imaginations of swirly paint, now the slanted chimney does the same.
We are afforded another treat (no pun intended) into this dichotomy as the quirky tune is instantiated before Wonka’s eyes. His face is filtered through the medium he knows best: candy. It is candy that assumes the role of his complex and inscrutable persona, represented by the swirling colours before him suspended in time. The clear and unblemished core of the freestanding candy pierces into his youthful, infinitely curious soul. Contrast this to the mythical fashion in which Wonka is described. ‘The whole world wanted his candy’, ‘the man was a genius’, ‘he decided to build a chocolate factory—the largest chocolate factory in history: fifty times as big as any other’.
Charlie finds the piece he needed: on what matters most
The throwback to Mr Bucket’s toothpaste factory workplace adds to the fantastical and vivid quality of the film’s imaginations. Charlie seizes on what is in Mr Bucket’s domain an unappreciated and highly imperfect toothpaste lid, yet for him it is just the piece he needed: a head for Willy Wonka. That the last piece of Charlie’s microcosm factory was the head of Willy Wonka, rather than the top of the central smokestack says much about the philosophical role of humans in assuming dominion over their industrial creations—a tragic counterpoint to Mr Bucket’s redundancy at the hands of an automated toothpaste machine. Willy Wonka’s head stands out from the other pieces, showing that within the factory, the centre of the town, resides Willy Wonka, its complex and chaotic life-force. The unremitting, brilliant Johnny Depp poses in front of the newly-opened factory thereafter, cementing the solitude Wonka treasures, and the uniqueness the world adores.
Then comes the tale of Prince Pondicherry, the beginning of the film’s dive into the seven deadly sins, starting with sloth. This marks certainly one of the most memorable scenes of the film. So vivid are the pictures from this flashback, they must appear in the nightmares of every ten year old. The prince’s perverse laugh is so well choreographed it has stuck in my mind all the years since. The aftermath of the destruction of the temple, of Biblical proportions, had been couched in another deadly sin, that of envy. The malevolence of the insider sell-outs portrayed subsequently is a confronting part of the film for many young viewers.
Once the story of the factory’s closing is told, the mystery of the Wonka legend, and that of the city as a whole, begins to unfold. Now the monotony of the chocolate-wrapping machines are superseded by a question of a much subtler kind: who or what is actually working the chocolate? ‘Have you ever seen’, asks Grandma Josephine, ‘a single person going into that factory or coming out of it?’. Now it has been superseded by a single-minded focus on commercial reproduction and exchange. The blood has stopped flowing through the arteries of the economy. The traffic lights do not work, and cars are never seen. Compare to this to the flashbacks of Grandpa Joe’s working days, or even the moment Wonka closed his factory. ‘The only thing that comes out of that place is the candy’, confirms Grandpa Joe, ‘already packed and addressed’, he says regrettably. The heart of the city has hardened, leading to a state of cynicism and indifference: ‘It’s a mystery and it will always be a mystery’ determines Grandpa George.
The determinacy of luck
But it is Grandma Georgina’s observation that prevails in the end. ‘Nothing’s impossible’, she tells Charlie. It turns out that this moment, in its magnitude of luck, far outweighs any serendipity Charlie may have revelled in when finding the last Golden ticket. For it is during the night, a time of subconscious and metaphysical interaction and interconnectivity, that we find ‘the impossible had already been set in motion’ (italics mine).
It is easy to forget this coincidence, the real coincidence of the film. Charlie completes his model factory just at a time when Wonka has determined its real-world fate, that he is going to give it away. There has been a protracted, and well-thought out history leading up to this moment. If that isn’t enough good fortune, Charlie’s birthday lands within a fortnight of Wonka’s announcement. Grandma Georgina affirms her commitment to the justice of the unknown: ‘you have as much chance as anybody does’, she tells Charlie. Looking ahead, we see Charlie and his hero chocolatier meet not at the beginning, but at the end of their respective journeys, which were always much closer, and much more complicated, than either could have ever imagined.
This synchrony of fate is not lost on Charlie. In what must surely be the uttermost defining moment of the film, Charlie, as he hears that ‘some kid in Russia’ has won the last Golden ticket, closes his eyes and meditates on his metaphysically-ordained fate. He summons the forces of order and chaos, in the determination that the last Golden ticket will be his. From here it is nature that does his bidding. Fate endows him with the money he uses to buy the chocolate. It is not given to him consciously by his grandpa. He does not run frantically down ‘to the nearest store’, but strolls sedately to the one he finds most fitting. Charlie does not ‘buy the first Wonka candy bar [he] sees’. Instead he delegates this responsibility to the shopkeeper, who does not bother glance at the bar he chooses. The whole process reduces humans to the status of a puppet. When we let go, so the episode teaches us, things work themselves out. When we intervene, we are disappointed. Charlie knows this, and that is why he does not involve himself in passionate affairs—as when Augustus indulges too possessively; Violet, too prematurely; Veruca, too demandingly; and Mike, too ambitiously.
The factory tour as an exploration of Wonka’s mind
The tour of the factory serves a number of purposes. One that Wonka certainly did not intend for was it to function as a tour of his psyche. ‘This is the Puppet Hospital and Burn Center’, he says toward the end of the tour, ‘it’s relatively new’. It is clear now that rooms in this factory are created at the whim of thought, and what occurs in them, in particular the fate of Gloop, Salt, Beauregarde, and Teavee, appear to have mental counterparts. The otherwordly nature of this tour leads us to doubt whether the five children and their parents really ever did proceed pass the impossibly small door, rather than merely speak to Wonka in the hallway (this would make more sense as they all, in the end, exited from it—with the obvious exception).