Bright Lights Film Journal

Clichés or Archetypes? Trash or Transcendence?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka gives Missi Pyle, James Fox, David Kelly, Freddie Highmore, et al. the guided tour.

One man’s cliché is another man’s archetype. Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, like most of Burton’s work, is filled with clever ideas, but they are predominantly visual ideas, the kind of ideas one might see in the work of Frank Tashlin, Alfred Hitchcock, or Chuck Jones. In my last post, a tribute to Christopher Lee, I praised Burton’s film for a plot idea, the creation of a backstory for eccentric chocolate manufacturer Willy Wonka (Depp) involving a stern dentist father (Lee) who wouldn’t let young Wonka eat candy. I was immediately flamed by a commenter who considered the idea stupid, pointless, and “utterly unnecessary.”

I’ll concede the daddy idea is a simple one, simple enough for even children (one of the film’s target audiences) to understand. But I also believe Wonka’s “daddy issues,” clichéd as they might seem, work on the level of archetype, the level from which most narrative works derive their power. (Hamlet, Oedipus, anyone?) Ideas are only that – ideas – abstract vessels into which artists (actors, directors, designers) pour the wine of their personal expression. Daddy issues are, in fact, common in Burton’s movies – see, for example, Edward Scissorhands or Big Fish (the latter scripted by John August, who also adapted Charlie) – and they move us in Charlie due to the genuine emotional investment of Burton, Depp, and Lee in the underlying archetype.

A Children’s Hell

From an even more archetypal point of view, Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is a children’s version of Hell in which sinners are first tempted, and then grotesquely punished for yielding to temptation. If the chocolate factory is Hell, then Willy Wonka is the Prince of Hell, aka Lucifer, aka Satan, and the diminutive Oompa Loompas are his demon servants. In Dante’s Inferno, sinners were buried up to their necks in shit. One doesn’t have to be a confirmed Freudian to see the parallel to gluttonous Augustus Gloop being drowned in a river of chocolate (above).

Instead of being tempted, little Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) acts as Wonka’s Redeemer, teaching him the value of familial love which Wonka had previously rejected. Most significantly, Charlie mediates the reconciliation between Wonka, i.e., the Fallen Angel Lucifer, with his dad, who in this reading of the film would obviously be God the Father.

A delicious, if somewhat subversive, Christian parable. What more could one want from a kiddie movie?