Trippy Films: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

This is the second in a series of posts on movies with psychedelic themes, discussing the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Mel Stuart and starring Gene Wilder. This movie was adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964. But before getting to that, allow me to digress for a moment (for no good reason, really) to discuss a story with a different Charlie.

I have two young children and they ask me to tell them stories on a fairly regular basis. I try to make up stories relevant to what they’re doing, but occasionally I fall back on recounting the plot from movies I’ve seen or books I’ve read. The main thing I’ve learned is that when told the right way you can pretty turn any story into one a child can enjoy. Some time back I told my son the story of Apocalypse Now–not the easiest story to recount in a kid-friendly way, but my heavily edited version of the story worked surprisingly well, and both my son and my daughter have asked to hear that one again. They’ve asked some interesting questions about it: “Did Captain Willard talk to Charlie?”, “Did Charlie blow up the bridge every night because it was too long?” (the Do Long Bridge, that is), “Did Chef ever get out of the boat?” (well, yes, but…). In telling the story I used a few lines from the movie, such as “Never get out of the boat!” and “Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger” and I laughed out loud when my daughter asked me to tell the story again by saying, “start with the part where Charlie was squatting in the bushes.”

Apocalypse Now is certainly a trippy movie and no doubt I’ll return to that in a later post, but as I said, this post is about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I don’t know why it took me so long to think of telling my kids the story of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka–or more to the point, why I thought of telling my kids the story of Apocalypse Now before Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Probably not worth the effort, but just to explain what made me think of Apocalypse Now was when my son asked what a “mission” was, and, of course, I thought of Willard being given the mission to terminate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice” and what kid wouldn’t be swept away by the magic of that story? Right? Oh, never mind. Anyway, back to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I loved the book and the movie as a child, and my kids love the story, as well, of course. It has so many elements that make for a good children’s story: good things to eat, an imaginative setting, interesting, easily identifiable characters who are punished for their bad behavior and a heroic central character who is rewarded for his earnestness and loyalty (you know, if you think about it, Apocalypse Now has all these elements, as well). We’ve read parts of the book together, and we’ve watched the 1971 version of the movie starring Gene Wilder, as well as the 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp, which returned the original title, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What struck me is how the 1971 film adds psychedelic elements not present in Dahl’s book or the 2005 remake, for that matter, which tried to stay closer to Dahl’s story (other than the whole Wonka father-son conflict backstory, that is). The most obvious psychedelic twist in the 1971 film is the “The Wondrous Boat Ride” as it is called on the soundtrack LP. Willy Wonka invites the group to board his boat, the SS Wonkatania, to travel down the chocolate river, but things quickly get weird. “What is this, a freak-out?” asks Violet Beauregard as they enter a strange tunnel.

“Wondrous” boat ride? I think “terrorizing” is a more fitting adjective for this bad trip–as scary as Willard taking the boat up the Nung River into Cambodia to meet Kurtz, but I digress again. In his memoir Pure Imagination: The Making of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, director Mel Stuart denied any drug-related inspiration for this scene. Instead, he claims that he was trying to heighten the sense of danger by expanding on Dahl’s original depiction of the scene.

Many young people have come up to me and told me that they understood the allusion that the voyage of the SS Wonkatania was making. When the ship steams down the chocolate river with Wonka offering a bizarre commentary as strange images appear on the tunnel wall, the characters are really tripping out. The kids going into the chocolate tunnel are on the ultimate acid trip. Here’s their theory: the mushroom filing eaten by the group before the boat enters the tunnel is peyote, a form of psychedelic mushroom. Their rationale for this theory is that Willy Wonka is a “candy man,” a street term for a drug dealer.

But it wasn’t a psychedelic trip, or at least it wasn’t my intention for people to think it was. It was simply a deliberate attempt to heighten the drama in the film and to introduce an element of danger in the trip through the factory. However, I can’t prevent people from interpreting the movie in a way that suits them. As for me, I’ve never taken a drug in my life, so I don’t know anything about their effects.

Despite Mel Stuart’s claims to the contrary, it’s easy to see how this film has earned the reputation of being a hallucinogenic trip. Slant magazine refers to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a “sweetly psychedelic freak-out,” and Kieran Humphries of Dogfood Films has gone so far as to reimagine Willy Wonka as the “biggest drug baron in town” in a recut parody preview.

But beyond the “Wondrous Boat Ride” and the whimsical depiction of Willy Wonka and his factory, this story isn’t particularly psychedelic. The danger to the children in this film is not from mind-altering drugs, but rather once inside Wonka’s chocolate factory, the tragic flaws of each child lead to their demise. A common interpretation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that the children each represent one or more of the seven deadly sins. In this light, the ominous tone of the boat ride suggests that the children are being put to the test. It’s interesting to note that Augustus Gloop doesn’t even make it to the boat ride before his tragic flaw gets him ejected from the factory. Dahl seems to have had a special disdain for fat people, as several of his stories contained fat characters who were always portrayed in a negative light. In Augustus Gloop, Dahl equates being overweight with gluttony, making it next to impossible for Augustus Gloop to keep from doing himself in among all the temptations in Wonka’s wondrous chocolate factory. The other children might not succumb to their failings as quickly as Augustus Gloop, but it is only a matter of time before their greed, envy, sloth, and whatever other negative characteristics they possess lead to their demise. In a draft of the book Dahl included a sixth child, Miranda Piker, a “a nasty-looking girl with a smug face and a smirk on her mouth, and whenever she spoke it was always with a voice that seemed to be saying: ‘Everybody is a fool except me.'” (representing pride, perhaps?) but Dahl edited her out of the final version of the book.

On viewing this movie again, it’s really striking how negatively children and their parents are portrayed in a film that’s generally regarded as a sweet children’s story. Clearly, Dahl was not influenced at all by Dr. Benjamin Spock and his kinder, gentler approach to parenting. Before Spock’s influential 1946 book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the common wisdom was that above all parents needed to discipline their children or else they would become “spoiled.” Spock emphasized parental affection and understanding over discipline, but Dahl is clearly not sympathetic to this approach. It seems that in Dahl’s worldview, Charlie passes the test mainly because he is too poor to be spoiled, as Dahl seems to subscribe to Frank Capra’s notion that poor people are heroic simply by virtue of their poverty, and the Buckets, of course, are ridiculously poor.

Dahl also came under criticism for his depiction of the Oompa Loompas. In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa Loompas were pygmies from Africa. In later editions of the book Dahl changed their origins to “Loompaland,” and Willy Wonka gets rather defensive when Mrs. Salt points out that no such place exists. Mel Stuart explains that in the movie the Oompa Loompas were given orange faces and green hair so as to avoid the appearance that the Oompa Loompas were “a bunch of black pygmies from Africa working for the white man“. In 1972 Canadian children’s author Eleanor Cameron criticizedCharlie and the Chocolate Factory in a piece in The Horn Book Magazine, pointing not only to the servile depiction of the Oompa Loompas, but also the disregard shown toward the grandparents and their wishes to remain in their home, and to the “phony” way the book presented poverty. The Horn Book Magazine published Dahl’s testy reply to these criticisms the following year. He defended himself by accusing Eleanor Cameron of attacking him personally. He went on to claim that he had told his children some 5000 stories over the years and that their favorite among these was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He concluded by stating, “Mrs. Cameron will stop them reading it only over my dead body.” Well, at least he displayed (marginally) more class than Jacqueline Howette and Alice Hoffman in responding to criticism of his work.

But Willy Wonka and the Choclate Factory isn’t a children’s movie. As Mel Stuart put it, “I never wanted to make a picture for children. I wanted to make a movie for adults. I never changed my aim on that. This was not a Disney movie; that’s the last thing I wanted it to be.” Because of its universal themes, however, both children and adults can enjoy this movie, not to mention that the story has become a trope of its own. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has been parodied many times, and it’s significant that two recent parodies have come from animated TV series for adults, The Family Guy and Futurama. In both of these parodies the characters succumb to their own overindulgence and get ejected from the tour of the factory. In the Futurama episode “Fry and the Slurm Factory,” Fry wins a tour of the factory where the soft drink slurm is bottled by finding a golden bottlecap in a can of Slurm. On the tour Fry falls into the Slurm river and is carried away only to discover that the plant is a fake. In The Family Guy episode “Wasted Talent,” Peter drinks bottle after bottle of Pawtucket Patriot beer in order to find one of the “silver scrolls” hidden in a bottle of the beer to win a tour of the brewery. Peter gets ejected from the tour when he ventures into a forbidden room in the brewery to sample Pawtucket Patriot’s experimental beer that never goes flat. Peter literally gets kicked out by the Oompa Loompa-like Chumbawumbas when they cut short their song to kick him in the knee.

The TV series The Office also parodied Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the episode “Golden Ticket,” and once again the story seems to bring out the worst in the characters. Michael includes five “golden tickets” in random shipments, with the recipient gettng a 10 percent discount for a full year. Michael is proud of this idea and begins dressing like Willy Wonka. Things go wrong, however, when all five of the golden tickets go to one of Dunder Mifflin’s biggest clients, Blue Cross of Pennsylvania, which they interpret as entitling them to a 50 percent discount for the year. Horrified by such a bad outcome, Michael convinces Dwight to take the fall by saying it was all his idea. Rather than getting fired, however, Dwight receives congratulations when Blue Cross of Pennsylvania decides to use Dunder Mifflin exclusively as their provider of office supplies.

Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the chocolate factory, he gets stronger.

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