Movie Microscope: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka PosterThe works of Roald Dahl have inspired several films, but the best known of his works is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has been adapted to film on two separate occasions. The first adaptation, directed by Mel Stuart in 1971, is considered a classic and childhood staple by many. It has been one of my personal favorites since I was a small child, and would easily be worth the in-depth behind-the-scenes looks I like to do in my Favorite Films reviews. But for today, I would instead like to take a look at a couple scenes in the film and talk about their impact and meaning within the story. In particular, there’s a scene that isn’t present in the novel which is often brought up in criticism of this film.

I refer to the fizzy-lifting drink scene.

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Roald Dahl himself wrote the original screenplay, but director Mel Stuart would later bring in another writer, David Seltzer, to make some modifications, including the addition of a villain (Mr. Slugworth, played memorably by Günter Meisner). It is believed that the fizzy-lifting drink sequence was one of Seltzer’s additions, and it is something of a controversial ones among fans of the book. In this scene, Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) and Charlie (Peter Ostrum) lag behind the others for a moment to illicitly sample some of the experimental drink that allows people to fly. After nearly being cut to pieces by the ceiling fan, they find that they can return to ground through burping, and rejoin the rest of the group, with nobody apparently the wiser… at least until Wonka chews them out for it near the end of the film.

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“You lose! Good day, sir!”

Criticism for the scene comes largely from an examination of the fairness of the situation, and of the reason for the other characters being in the story. If the other children are “nasty, naughty children” who don’t deserve to win the grand prize nor inherit the factory, and Charlie gets all of that because he’s a good child, then what does the fizzy-lifting drink scene mean? Charlie’s infraction is seemingly of the same nature as all the others: he broke the rules of the factory, knowingly and willfully. Our saint is a sinner. Doesn’t the scene invalidate the whole premise of the story?

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I say it doesn’t. For starters, we do have to consider that although Charlie went along with it, it was technically Grandpa Joe’s idea. But there’s also an important difference in the nature of the infraction. Look at the other children for a moment. Augustus gets in trouble because of his gluttony; Veruca because of her greed. Mike Teevee is a victim of his obsession with television, with a degree of intellectual laziness, as well as his vanity at the idea of being on television. Violet falls prey to the defective gum because of a personal fixation — and one which is fueled at least in part by envious competitiveness, as shown by her comments about beating her friend’s gum-chewing record.

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But Charlie? The worst you could say about Charlie’s action is that it’s a bit impish. He’s looking to have a little fun, and while he is breaking a rule, he’s not expressing any major vice. It’s the sort of trait that a chocolatier of Wonka’s demeanor would appreciate; the man has a pretty large impish side himself, after all. And then Charlie and Grandpa Joe effect their own rescue, unlike any of the other children. Small wonder that no Oompa Loompa song is necessary for Charlie.

And then there’s the scene where Wonka tells Charlie that because of his theft, Charlie forfeits all rights to his chocolate prize. Grandpa Joe is furious. We can only imagine how the other children and parents would react, but we can assume based on prior behavior that it wouldn’t be positive. But Charlie? Charlie accepts the verdict. He knows he did wrong. And rather than give in to anger or revenge or greed, he still opts not to take the Everlasting Gobstopper to Slugworth for the 10,000 pound bounty. He returns it to Willy Wonka, because it’s the right thing to do, and because that’s the kind of person Charlie really is.

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“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

At this point, Wonka does a rapid about-face, calls Charlie back in, tells him he’s won everything, and brings out his employee — who has been masquerading as Slugworth the whole time. We learn that Wonka has been looking for a replacement, a child he can train to take over the factory and take care of the Oompa Loompas. It was the whole purpose for the Golden Tickets, and the Slugworth bounty and the tour were all a test, a test which Charlie alone passed.

It has been remarked by some that, as he was seeking a child, Wonka was remarkably lucky that all five Golden Tickets were obtained by children. After all, we know adults were looking for them as well. And what children! Two Brits, two Americans, and a German fluent in English; no translator needed, despite candy bars shipping all over the world. At the risk of going out on a limb here, I say that luck had nothing to do with it. The whole thing — even down to the selection of the children — was arranged by Wonka beforehand. It wasn’t a test for all of the children, though perhaps Wonka would have been happy to see alternatives, but for Charlie specifically.

Charlie lives in the very same town as Wonka’s factory. That’s a bit of a stretch of luck in the first place. And all the other ticket recipients are not only children, they’re children who perfectly illustrate the hazards that an upcoming confectioner might face. Gluttony, greed, vanity, sloth, and fixation are all traits that would be easy to fall prey to, and they’re all traits Wonka would have wanted to warn his protege about. He couldn’t have gotten better examples if he had hand-picked them.

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It wouldn’t be hard to do, either. If you have the ticket-bearing bars themselves, you can direct where they’ll go. Charlie’s Golden Ticket is literally handed directly to him by the local candy store owner, a man who opens the film with a song in praise of Wonka — and who specifically suggests that bar when Charlie decides to buy another candy bar. Granted, it’s the second bar, but Charlie had a specific request for the first. Bill gives every impression that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and if we assume that Wonka has had people looking in his town (the factory town, remember) for a pure, kind-hearted, hard-working kid… Charlie’s a pretty good candidate. Everybody knows him and how hard we works, and everybody likes him.

The other children wouldn’t be hard to find either. He didn’t have to specifically hand-pick each one, though world-record-holder Violet would be easy to target. He would just have to follow a similar process of scouting out an area and finding a child with a particular negative trait. Mike might have been the toughest one, and “Find me a child who is mindlessly obsessed with television” isn’t a tall order. “Find me a child who eats everything in sight” and “find me a spoiled rich kid” would be pretty easy orders to fill. Then it’s just a question of making sure the candy bar with the ticket ends up in the right hands.

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All this is a fine conjecture, of course, but is there evidence for it? Sure, there’s a lot of luck involved to this point, but is there a factor that can’t be explained by luck? Yes. Good ol’ Slugworth, there to tempt each and every child as they receive their Golden Ticket. Sure, we see him there with the press in the cases of Violet, Augustus, and Mike — the three non-Brits — so people might say he’s just learning about them with the rest of the world. But then there’s his appearance to Charlie, in the alley on Charlie’s way home, just minutes after Charlie opens his Golden Ticket. Although it’s still vaguely possible that it’s just a lucky coincidence, that he moved in quickly after hearing the commotion, it’s starting to stretch luck to the breaking point.

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It’s Veruca who snaps the “just lucky” premise in half. When Veruca finally gets her Golden Ticket, Slugworth is right there, inside Salt’s factory, mere seconds after the ticket is in her hands. Nobody’s that lucky. There’s only one reasonable explanation for how Slugworth could have been there at the precise moment the ticket was found: he knew it would be there. Most likely he put it there personally, either having earmarked a particular case to be sent to Salt’s factory once the “pay our workers to shuck candy bars” plan became known, or he went there and handed it to a worker saying “Here, you missed one.” Either way, it looks as though Veruca, and by implication the rest of the children, was hand-picked. The whole thing was a scheme.

The unsuspecting parents and children go to the factory, and each child promptly falls victim to a trap that’s tailored towards their primary vice. This may seem a little callous of Wonka, but he does reassure a concerned Charlie at the end that each child will be restored to normal, which further reinforces the idea that he knew what was going to happen to them. And after each child falls, the Oompa Loompas come out and sing a little ditty explaining the moral failings of the children: gluttony, greed, habitual fixation, and intellectual laziness.

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“Oompa, Loompa, doopity-doo…”

Which brings us back around to the fizzy-lifting drink. Charlie’s trap. Perhaps if Charlie had failed the test Wonka would have held another contest five years later with another group of children. But the trap is important not so much for Charlie’s actions in the scene itself, but for his actions in the later scene in Wonka’s office. There’s the true test, and the fizzy-lifting drink is important for it because it provides Wonka a reason to disqualify Charlie. It’s easy to be good when everything’s going well. Wonka needed a pretext to test whether Charlie could be good when he’d been wronged… especially one when Charlie knows that ultimately, Wonka has a point, even if he’s being overly strict in his response.

Wonka could, perhaps, have disqualified Charlie without an explanation, but I don’t think that would served his purpose as well — whether Charlie returned the Gobstopper or not. The tour ended rather abruptly after Mike’s departure; perhaps if Charlie hadn’t taken the fizzy lifting drink, it would have continued with further opportunities for Charlie to mess up somewhere. Wonka needed to see that Charlie was capable of accepting and learning from his own mistakes. It’s arguably the most important part of the test; Wonka explicitly says he wants a child to be his heir because a child isn’t set in his ways. If Charlie couldn’t own up to his own faults, as he did, he wouldn’t have been suitable.

Ultimately, the whole thing plays out as a test for Charlie, just as it acts as a morality play for the viewer. And all through a colorful, whimsical, musical medley of fun.

Rating: 5 Stars

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About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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4 Responses to Movie Microscope: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

  1. Nostra says:

    Excellent article. There were a couple of things I never thought about, but it makes sense what you are saying that the golden tickets were directed to specific children. It’s been way too long since I last saw it, but really looking forward to seeing this again.

  2. Dan says:

    Good read. Willy Wonka was a magical childhood favourite of mine and still remains endearing today. It helps, of course, that the source material is so good while Gene Wilder is terrific.

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