Charlie, Willy and Chocolate

27 12 2013

I had the opportunity to view the two movies based on the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While both certainly share some core story elements, they present someone different images of the story itself. I also want to talk about some elements that hopefully don’t detract from future viewing experiences of others. WARNING: I discuss information that will give away spoilers or important plot points, so continue at your own risk.

Overlapping Core Premise

Both movies retain some key common elements. Both feature the eccentric candy maker, whose factory has been closed for years. They all have 5 children, chosen at random, with 4 representing some aspect of unacceptable child behaviour. One represents an altruistic ideal. The 4 “bad” kids all get their comeuppance in a way commensurate with the respective flaws. The altruistic child ultimately wins. In both films. the factory is a wondrous and fantastical world of whimsy and imagination.

Beyond this, though, the two movies take different paths to tell a similar story. One has more depth and texture, while the other features something of a false McGuffin.

From this point on, I’ll occasionally be using a shorthand for each movie’s name. Specifically, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory will be sometimes referred to just as Willy, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will sometimes just be Charlie.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

The first adaption of the book, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971, includes Roald Dahl as a writer of the screenplay. It is a live-action musical, coming at what is arguably the end of what some consider the golden age of musical motion pictures. Starting in the 1940s, and through to the late 1960’s, live-action musicals were a staple of the movie scene in North America. Some were original works (such as The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ In The Rain), while others were often based off of Broadway musicals (such as My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music). Certainly, musicals continued to be made, but have arrived with far less frequency than in that period in history.

The film proved that Gene Wilder was able to continue to be funny, but be restrained enough for a movie to gain a G rating. The story itself was well-paced, and the musical numbers were suitable. However, except for the opening number (The Candy Man), most of the songs weren’t entirely memorable. This isn’t necessarily a problem. It is a movie aimed largely at kids, so it doesn’t appear a lot of effort was placed on the music. The music is done well enough to set the mood and advance the story, and keep things entertaining and light-hearted.

I am a big believer in movies where every scene has a purpose. When you only have 2 hours, more or less, to tell a complex tail, you really have to make every frame of film count. There is one scene, though, which doesn’t seem to have a purpose, specifically the scene with the school chemistry experiment. Sure, it’s humorous, and seems more as an excuse to bridge the announcement of the Golden Tickets than anything to do with real plot or character development. I believe that there could have been a better, and more engaging way, to make it clear just how big a deal the Golden Tickets are.

The False McGuffin

The first film includes what I see is a false McGuffin, the Everlasting Gobstopper. Unfortunately, you can’t ignore the questionable business model of a product that you buy once and may never, ever replace in your lifetime (and one aimed at a market that isn’t expected to yield any extra future revenue, “kids with very little pocket money”). Willy says that if his competition, Slugworth, should ever get his hands on one, he will be ruined. That’s a pretty tenuous way to run a business, and not one that is consistent with the marketing and product genius Wonka had been to date.

But why is this false? Because of a second problem: giving one to Slugworth after the tour is only going to shorten his lead time to market. Once they hit stores, Slugworth would be able to buy one for himself. At best, it might shorten the time it takes to duplicate the thing by days or weeks.

Any “threat” to give one to Slugworth rings a bit hollow. It isn’t much of a threat. I get that the creators of the film wanted to create some kind of suspense, and have a “bad guy” beyond the ill-behaved children. Given how they chose to tell the story, the whole Gobstopper/Slugworth plot element was probably the easiest way to do it. Let’s face it, how many kids are going to be watching the movie and carefully dissecting Wonka’s business model or the risks associated with it?

Even with this, I still enjoy watching the movie. It is still entertaining and humorous, and seeing Gene Wilder in a more subdued but still funny role is nice.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, released in 2005, is not a remake of the 1971 film, and it is not a live-action musical. It shares some musical elements, but none of the main (or even major secondary) characters break out in song as they did in the 1971 film. As with most of Tim Burton’s works, this film contains a darker and deeper image than its 1971 counterpart. It features a fantastic-as-usual Johnny Depp and wonderful supporting cast. It is about as surreal as Willy, but in a more substantial and spooky way.

We get far more backstory in Charlie, and learn more about Wonka and his rise to prominence in the candy world. In the 1971 film, we are presented with a man who is already influential and known to be a unique individual. In Charlie, we begin to see into the mind of Willy Wonka. We get to see where he came from, and get a more complete picture of who he is. We see that all of his influences aren’t necessarily positive.

One sequence, in particular, could be seen as a bit of a waste, but I believe it illustrates an important point. This is the sequence with Prince Pondicherry and his chocolate palace. It wouldn’t seem to demonstrate much to us on the surface. But it does two things. First, it shows the genius that is Willy Wonka. The man builds a massive building entirely out of chocolate. Second, after the palace is destroyed by the heat, Wonka turns down a very lucrative offer to rebuild it in order to deal with problems back at the factory. It shows that Wonka knows where his real priorities lie. The man might be eccentric, but he isn’t stupid.

In this movie, the Everlasting Gobstopper makes a brief appearance, but mainly as a casual aside. It isn’t a key element to the story the way it was in 1971. Here, even Willy seems to question whether it makes sense as a product or not.

But It Has Songs!

But doesn’t the presence of musical numbers in Charlie make it a musical? Some of those songs are somewhat expository in nature, and would seem to advance the plot. And they certainly do, to some extent. But the difference is in who sings them, and where they fit. The 1971 films opens almost immediately with a song. We get songs, at regular intervals, to explain things or to describe feelings or emotions, and to reinforce what we’ve seen in images and heard in dialog. The song Wonka sings, himself, is our one insight into the nature of Willy Wonka.

In Charlie, we don’t get our first musical number until well into the film, and it occurs at a point where it fits naturally with the movie. It is a song for the characters to listen to, not just the audience. The remaining 4 songs, one for each of the “bad” kids, simply adds texture, and adds an element of judgement, to flaws we are already aware of, and whose cause we already understand. What the songs do is to keep within the theme and tone of the picture while in the factory, and they only occur in and around the fantastical world of the factory.

That is a key difference. In Willy, the songs occur anyplace and any time. In Charlie, they only occur within the constructed world of Willy Wonka, and except for the song by the animatronic puppets, are only sung by the Oompa-Loompas.

Extra Depth

Consider the basic structure of the Willy version of the story. It is, in essence, a 2-act movie. Most movies are built around a 3-act structure: 20-30 minutes of “setup” followed by a hook, an hour or so of “conflict” followed by another hook, with 20-30 minutes of “resolution”. Some movies play with the order of things, but 3 acts in this order is fairly common. The 1971 film is really 2 acts: the “setup” where we meet Charlie and his family, and we get the suspense of who will be touring the factory. The hook comes when Charlie finds the last ticket, and now we’re off in an amazing world of candy and life lessons for some of the kids. The movie ends when Charlie, deciding that he doesn’t deserve any reward, even a Gobstopper, for his actions in the Fizzy Lifting Drinks room, shows contrition. That act wins him the prize, it’s “up and out” in the Glass Elevator and the movie is done. No resolution. No explanation about why Willy Wonka opened his factory. No follow-up on the other 4 children. Nothing. Charlie wins, the bad kids are punished and all is well.

In Charlie, the story is both longer and deeper. We see that Wonka has some emotional baggage. He is faced with his own mortality, and wants his legacy to continue on. That requires an heir. In terms of structure, this is certainly a 3-act movie. The first two acts follow the same pattern in the 1971 film: meet the characters and find the tickets; tour the factory and Charlie wins. But this is where the second hook appears, leading into the third act. Charlie won’t accept the prize if he has to leave his family.

What we get is a 3rd act and resolution. Willy Wonka reunites with his father. He understand the importance of family, and that it is family that can help preserve a legacy as well. We even get a short scene with the 4 “bad” kids, showing what happened after their various incidents.

Deeper Supporting Characters

In the 1971 film, the 4 “bad” children and their parents aren’t all that deep. Certainly, the kids and their families are meant to be caricatures. But they don’t gain much beyond a single dimension. The differences in some of the families is interesting to examine.

The Teavee (Teevee in 1971) family didn’t change a lot. The 2005 family was updated to include video games, but both feature a loud, pushy, arrogant smart-mouthed boy with rather subdued parents. The beige colours of his home and parents in the 2005 was a nice touch. The new Mike Teavee was perhaps a bit more violent, but the character really wasn’t all that different.

Like Mike, Augustus Gloop wasn’t radically different in the 2005 film. He was a self-centered and gluttonous boy in both movies, and his parents indulged him accordingly. Given he is the first kid to be removed from the story, we get the point without needing a deeper character to tell that part of the story.

Violet Beauregard was more driven in the 2005 film. Her 1971 counterpart was certainly loud and confident, but the new Violet was far more competitive and outgoing. The switch in parents was also a good touch. The 1971 Violet had a father who was a local politician and used car salesman. The 2005 Violet featured a far more dangerous mother: one who had managed only modest success, and pushed her own daughter to greater fame that she, herself, could live through vicariously. The 1971 Violet was mainly just loud. The 2005 Violet was highly competitive and driven young girl.

The biggest difference is Veruca Salt and her father. In the 1971 film, she appears to come from a “middle class made good” family, where her father is something of a working man who built a business from the ground up. He is rougher around the edges, with his working-class accent and rumpled suit. The 2005 Salt family is clearly a family of substantial wealth, and a member of the British upper class. Unlike her 1971 counterpart, who can be seen hanging around the factory demanding her Golden Ticket, the 2005 Veruca is largely shielded from the machinery that makes her selfish lifestyle possible. With his proper accent, well-tailored suits and reserved demeanor, the 2005 Mr. Salt is clearly a man of money and influence, as used to getting his own way as his daughter is.

Is One A Better Movie?

Certainly, comparing the two movies (as I have just done) is a normal thing to do. I find it interesting to see how two different sets of artists interpret the same story. From this piece, it might be tempting to say that I think the 2005 movie is better than the 1971 movie. I don’t think that’s the right conclusion. Except for 1 scene I felt wasn’t a useful as it could be, and the minor issue of the false McGuffin, I don’t have a lot of true criticism for the 1971 film. I think it does its job, and tells the story in a light and entertaining way. Like the candy Wonka makes, it is an airy confection. It is still fun to watch.

The 2005 film is definitely a deeper and more substantial telling of the story. It is a different story, and at a technical level, it could be viewed as “better”.  The story is certainly more complete, and holds together a bit more logically. But as entertainment, I think it’s about on the same level. I’m not looking for grand life stories, I’m looking for some light and humorous storytelling. That it is done differently doesn’t detract from the first film.

In the end, I think both movies are good. I find them fun to watch, and I don’t mind re-watching them from time to time (I’ve seen the 1971 film about a dozen times since its release, and the 2005 film at least a half-dozen times). Dissecting both films a bit doesn’t detract from their ability to entertain.

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