Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A charming fairy-land of playfulness, whimsy and possibility, and the interior of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a richly realized, imaginatively produced meditation on art, creativity and irrationality, and how those unpredictable, untameable, wild qualities can be used to make a lot of money. In this regard it is a summation not only of Tim Burton’s career but of the movie business in general.

Early on in the movie, a story is told about Willy Wonka building a chocolate palace for a vain Indian prince. Wonka warns the prince that the palace won’t last, but the prince disdains his advice; eat his beautiful palace? The idea is absurd. Sure enough, the palace melts and the prince is left with nothing. This anecdote sets the tone for the rest of the story — Wonka built the palace to be consumed and destroyed, but the prince wants it to stand as a tribute to his own extravagance. Wonka knows that the power of his art lies in the fact that it will not, cannot last; the prince demands that the art last forever.

More on this later.

Charlie wants to get one of the golden tickets that will admit him entrance to the mysterious, magical factory — that is, he wants access to the creative center, the act of creation. A budding artist himself (he’s built a model of the factory out of deformed toothpaste caps), he seeks the locus of inspiration. Since Charlie is a desperately poor child, how shall he obtain this ticket?

The other children get their tickets through a variety of methods: Augustus Gloop gets his because he naturally eats a great deal of chocolate, Veruca Salt forces her father to enslave his factory workers into unwrapping millions of chocolate bars, Violet Beauregard gets hers seemingly through blind determination to win, and Mike Teevee gets his through “cracking the code,” using a complicated formula to determine where the next golden ticket might appear. Of these approaches, Augustus’s seems to be the most innocent and related to the natural function of chocolate (that is, to be eaten); Augustus’s problem seems to be that he enjoys his natural state a little too much.

How shall Charlie get his ticket? His parents buy him a bar for his birthday, but there is no ticket there. So parental love, generosity, legacy, inheritance — those won’t get Charlie what he wants. His grandfather gives him money from a secret stash, his last money in the world, to go buy a bar, but that bar contains no ticket either. So faith and lack of caution won’t work either. No, Charlie gets his golden ticket through sheer dumb luck — he finds a ten-dollar bill in the street (in England, but let’s set that aside for now), and buys a bar from the first newsstand he comes to. He uses no system and has no determination — he’s not a “special child,” he is not blessed. As Willy Wonka says when he meets Charlie, “Well, you’re just lucky to be here, aren’t you?”

After getting his golden ticket, after achieving his entry into the heart of inspiration, Charlie is tempted to sell out. His family, he reasons, could get thousands of dollars for the ticket, he shouldn’t be so foolish as to trade a day of inspiration for months of sustanence. His grandpa George sets him straight, tells him that money is the most common thing there is, they’re always printing more of it, but the golden ticket is rare and precious, almost unique, and so Charlie narrowly avoids losing his inspiration for something as banal as comfort.

The first stop on the tour is Wonka’s own center of creation itself, a virtual Garden of Eden of candy (the Eden parallel made explicit by Violet greedily snatching a candy apple off a tree — and lest we forget, “inspiration” means to have God breathe into you). Wonka, like God, invites the children to eat anything they want with one exception. Set free in Eden, Mike Teevee destroys as his father (who bears an uncanny resemblance to renowned subway vigilante Bernard Goetz) looks on helplessly and Mrs. Gloop is seen stealing what is being given away for free.  Augustus breaks the one rule set down and gets expelled from Eden.

This is the third time I’ve watched the movie, but only the first time Johnny Depp’s performance made any sense to me.  This time around, I was struck by when his speech is fluid, when he has trouble expressing himself and when he actually must rely on pre-printed cheat-sheets to say something.  Since Wonka makes and sells candy for a living, it is assumed that he is a wholesome, child-friendly man, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. 

The imitation “Small World” robot puppet number, meant to herald the arrival of Wonka, backfires and melts down as it invites the guests into the factory.  It’s an imitation “Small World” number because Wonka is trying to match his public image as a children’s entertainer, a la Walt Disney.  It melts down because it cannot disguise the fact that he is not.  It’s notable for being an introduction to a character who, of course, turns out to not be part of the introduction.  Wonka is happy to put on the show, but it does not occur to him that he would actually be introduced by his own introduction.  That would make too much sense, and Wonka is not capable of making sense.

Little Wonka says makes sense in any practical sense of the term, and that is of course the point, or rather the pointlessness.  (“Why is everything in this factory completely pointless?” complains Mike Teevee.  “Candy doesn’t have to have a point,” answers Charlie, “that’s why it’s candy.”)  I am reminded of conversations I’ve had with artists where I’ve tried to get them to give up the secrets of their work.  They can rarely explain why they chose one concept over another, get vague and visibly uncomfortable when pressed, and either completely shut down (as Wonka does several times in this movie) or else start reciting reams of incomprehensible theory they remember from art school (which is what Wonka has the cheat-sheets for).  Wonka doesn’t have a scheme or a formula or a plan; he just is. 

(The most controversial aspect of the movie is its attempt to “explain” Wonka, which Burton and Depp put over in the most ironic, eye-rolling terms possible.  “Okay,” they seem to be saying, “we’ll give you ‘meaning,’ but we’re not going to mean it.”)

Several things in the movie stick out amid the elaborate production design and the sumptuous photography.  First is the performance of Deep Roy as every Oompa-Loompa in the movie, which is both a triumph of special effects and a triumph of acting, insofar as one quickly accepts the idea of thousands of Oompa-Loompas living in the factory and quickly forgets the fact that they’re all being played by the same guy.  Second is the makeup, which seemingly transforms several of the characters into something a little more than plastic and a little less than human.  Third is the trained squirrels, another special-effects triumph and the result of thousands of hours of squirrel training.

A couple of winters ago, the artist Christo finally got to install his “Gates” project in Central Park for two weeks in February.  He had been trying to get it installed since 1979 and finally succeeded in 2005.  There was a great deal of resistance to the project (over 25 years of resistance, in fact), both before it was put up and afterwards.  I remember walking through Central Park amid the gorgeous, inspiring, completely pointless saffron banners, and being accosted by a total stranger, an older man who was furious, furious that this artwork had been put up.  “Why couldn’t they use the money for something useful?” he demanded to know, from me, for some reason.  To which I said “What does it matter?  It was his money, he can do what he wants with it.”  “Yes,” said the man, “But we have to pay for it!”  To which I said “But we don’t have to pay for it.  Christo used his own money to put it up, paid all the workers to maintain it, and will pay to have it taken down.  In addition, he’ll pay to have the park restored to its previous condition and make a large donation to the Central Park Conservancy.  In addtion, the tourists coming into the city to see the piece will bring more money in, so not only are we not paying for it, we’re in fact making money off it.”  But the man would not be placated.  He knew, he knew that Christo had to be making a fool out him somehow, that there had to be some kind of a scam to it, one doesn’t just spend millions of dollars on something as pointless as, as this.

I walked on through the park and came to the Sheep Meadow, where hundreds of New Yorkers and tourists roamed in a state of weird, elevated giddiness.  The park had been transformed into a wild playground of irrationality; the Gates, finally, didn’t “mean” anything at all.  If anything, they removed meaning from the park; they were a meaningless hoot, a shout of joy in the chill February air (I wonder if it’s symbolic that Charlie visits Wonka’s factory on February 1st, literally the middle of winter).  Three years after 9/11, New Yorkers defied depression with an embrace of the exuberantly irrational.  Like the palace Wonka made for the Indian prince, “The Gates” didn’t last long, by design.  If it had stayed around forever, or had been brought back for an encore, it would defeat the purpose of the piece, which is to be transitory and as sensual as a bite of chocolate.  To keep “The Gates” around would be to want to have one’s cake and eat it too. hit counter html code


11 Responses to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
  1. occlupanid says:

    A lovely comparison! Would Christo’s gates have been less effective if they’d come with a “message”? I’d suspect so. Or at least, they’d be less delightful in their total randomness.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    In the spirit of being only slightly relevant:

    I went and looked up Goetz on Wikipedia (I knew who he was, but wanted some reminders) and was surprised to learn that not only was he mugged by the Flash, but also:

    His other interests include magnetic levitation, plasma nuclear fusion, and squirrels.

    Which could explain the trained squirrels in the movie. (And who can we trust if not Wikipedia?)

    In a bit of satiric writing I did a while back — in response to someone complaining that Darth Vader was dull because he was evil and an unoriginal character, I suggested that perhaps what we need is “a villain who is nice and gives kids candy”. After seeing this Charlie I commented that this could easily describe Wonka as well.

    • Todd says:

      not only was he mugged by the Flash, but also: his other interests include magnetic levitation, plasma nuclear fusion, and squirrels.

      Those are the makings of a kickass supervillain.

      No doubt there are many miles of subterranean connections in Tim Burton’s movies, Charlie not excepted.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I ran across a villain in City of Villains whose story was that he’d been born with the ability to control the minds of squirrels. However, since that wasn’t very useful, he built giant robots and wired in the squirrel brains. I now fear this person may have been Bernie in disguise.

  3. yetra says:

    Lovely comparison, and thanks for stirring up my memories of the gates. I flew out to NY to see them, along with a bunch of friends, and it was pretty magical. My favorite was one night it started to snow, and at around 3am we found ourselves running through the empty park, laughing amongst the gates, covered in totally fresh snow, being completely delighted (that is until park security told us we had to leave). Ah, a favorite memory.

    And damn, I just realized I must have deleted all my photos from that trip.

  4. mikeyed says:

    OMG! We have the big, blue arch to rival your “gates”. Don’t think you New Yorkers have a monopoly on unnecessary decore. You go down Telegraph and you come up to the bridge that leads to the highway. It’s not going over anything except Telegraph. The arch stretches over it akin to metal arches over a suspension bridge, but these arches have yet to provide any suspension. In addition to that, we didn’t have some multi-millionaire to sponsor any of this. I believe it’s mostly funded by corporate contributions, but it was basically a big advertisement for the super bowl coming to Detroit, since the arch is two long, slender beams with smaller ones running across in the shape of footballs. I never want to hear anyone try to explain it, because all it really is is a billboard with a bigger budget and already out of date.

  5. mr_rakshasa says:

    “I see it as a tribute to Christo, the artist.”

    “I see it as a waste of Baco, the Foil.”

  6. ghostgecko says:

    I doubt anyone would have gotten so excited about the Gates if they hadn’t taken so long to go up.

    My own reaction was pretty much “eh”, but I’m not a big fan of that sort of “Look at me being clever and mysterious!” sort of art. Yes, you’re very clever and mysterious . . . and?

    Also, I hate the sound of plastic.

  7. Anonymous says:


    Sorry to say that the Chocolate Factory stuff has no resonance for me at all – it was never part of my childhood nor does it have any resonance in the culture in which I was brought up.
    BUT, as a fan of Christo’s since 1962 when I first encountered his work at a Paris exhibition – at that time he was wrapping things like typewriters and had plans to wrap a submarine – I was delighted by your comments re the Christo Central Park installation. I would have LOVED to have travelled to see it but the funds weren’t available.
    I’d also like to add my own comment re the character of Christo which will also clearly make evident his human warmth – something which doesn’t necessarily come across in his exhibits.
    I worked for some years in Manhattan as a shiatsu practitioner and just before I finally left for the green fields and mountains of Vermont I had a new client who told me that she worked for Christo. I had, as it happens, once spoken with Jeanne Claude re the possibility of Christo making some kind of presentation at the NY Open Center, where I also worked, but we hadn’t been able to find a real topic that would have been compelling enough to co-create.[Wrap the building?? Far too modest a project at that point in his career..]
    Anyway shortly after moving to VT I received a package from Christo with 3 signed prints of the Umbrellas project. It was addressed by him personally – distinctive handwriting! – and remains one of my great treasure, despite the fact that that particular project is perhaps his only “failure” in the sense that it unfortunately killed someone in California and someone in Japan – in CA an installer touched a live power line and in J the wind blew over an umbrella. [as far as I remember these are the accurate details]. My point is that Christo had no benefit to receive from me – except perhaps that I do write good PR for him whenever I get an opportunity – and simply responded to my enthusiasm, transmitted 2nd hand by one of his assistants. A simple act of kindness and generosity on his part which was a true joy and treasure for the recipient.

    • Todd says:

      Re: christo

      Thanks for your comments. Though I have never met Christo, I’ve liked his work for a number of years — I think ever since I saw his proposal for wrapping the Whitney museum — but feel truly priviledged to have lived in New York during the installation of “The Gates.” Even if the piece is completely meaningless — and I think it very well may be meaningless on any literal level — it put you in an utterly different state of mind as you moved through it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: christo

        I live near Central Park and went to see The Gates at least once daily, walking through different parts of it at all times of day and night and in all weather. Here’s what I found so fascinating:

        1. Its sheer physical presence — the way the light came through the curtains and cast shadows on them, how the piece interacted with the artificially “natural” landscape, its scale, its bright color against the muted winter hues of the park and city in the background, the way it forced people to decide whether to walk through or around each gate they encountered.

        2. How it elicited response from everyone in the park, like the man who ranted to you about it. The place was packed with people from all over the world, and they all talked to each other. They even talked to our dog. (She had her picture taken a lot, and a Danish news crew filmed her walking alone through a line of the gates.)

        3. Its disappearance. Of course, plenty of people bought the souveniers (good thing, too, since that’s what bankrolls these projects) and still more took photos. I didn’t do either of those things, preferring to let the experience dissolve into memory rather than harden into a set of unchanging pictures. But I still have a scrap of the fabric in a coat pocket, and whenever I happen to pull it out and look at it, I feel that sense of transformation again.