inthewonkabardoCharlie and the Chocolate Factory
Tim Burton, Director
Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005

Sure, Tim Burton’s new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is darker and stranger than your average kids’ film—it’s like the queasy dream of a hyperactive child who’s nodded out while eating too many Wonka bars and channel surfing between a VH1 psychedelic marathon and a Busby Berkeley festival. But like many a journey through the dark, it manages to bump into some truths that are as important as they are unsettling. In fact, the most disturbing elements are precisely the ones that are of most interest to those of us who, in blissful disregard of the filmmakers’ intentions, watch our movies in glorious DharmaVision.

(Full disclosure: Chocolate is my drug of choice. Few things convince me so deeply, so cellularly, that all’s right with the world as expensive Belgian Dark surging through my bloodstream. I faithfully e-mail myself every bulletin about a new study demonstrating its health benefits. So I’m naturally biased in favor of a movie that celebrates chocolate as divine ambrosia, as a metaphor for the joy all beings seek, which has no source or goal. As Charlie declares, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s what makes it candy.”)

Johnny Depp’s weird, dysfunctional Willie Wonka puts many people off. It’s been widely noted that as he welcomes the five lucky finders of the golden tickets to a tour of his fabled factory, he’s doing both Michael Jackson in Neverland and Mister Rogers in the Neighborhood. But he’s also the insecure charlatan Wizard of Oz, the phobic genius Howard Hughes, the avuncular megalomaniac Walt Disney—all the magnates and monarchs who have ever been intent on ruling their own worlds. Ultimately, he’s a wicked parody of God, dysfunctions and all. The first hint of that comes at the tour’s outset, when the kids are greeted by a display of creepy, plump-cheeked mechanical dancing dolls, much like the uber-cute bobbleheads on Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride, dutifully singing their creator’s praises. But running a world, whether small or large, turns out to be harder than making one. As the dolls burst into flame, like God’s mortal puppets beset by war, famine, pestilence, and death, Willie offers no more apology than a sniggering “Oops.”

Thus the film deconstructs the allegedly benevolent Creator God and replaces him with a bungling, unwitting trickster god. The benevolent version has been a problem for Christianity since the Middle Ages, when theologians, who had posited him as all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, realized he could logically have any two of those qualities but not all three, given the presence of suffering in the world: God either doesn’t know my back hurts or doesn’t care or can’t do anything about it. With some nimble theological footwork, Christianity danced its way out of the problem to its own satisfaction, but this film, like the Buddha, doesn’t buy it. The inconvenient fact of human suffering—the stumbling block of theism—is, of course, the foundation stone of dharma. In any case, Depp’s caricature of the Deity is more interested in power than compassion. Having fired most of his human employees, he’s content to watch his superautomated factory run itself. Willie Wonka is a techno wonk with a big will to power.

If anything, he’s more malevolent than benevolent, especially in the film’s middle portion. With Willie’s vaguely defined collusion, the visiting children are treated to customized abuse: the gluttonous fat boy gets a spell of drowning in a river of chocolate until he becomes a big morsel of the same (you really are what you eat), the violent TV addict gets trapped inside the TV, and so on. But these are more than Dante-esque infernal punishments to fit assorted crimes. Their tour of the factory has become a bardo journey, in which the children confront visionary manifestations of their own kleshas, the “mind poisons” or afflictive emotions that obscure one’s ability to perceive the nirvanic perfection of things as they are. In each case the “punishment” is really a projection of the child’s specific form of self-grasping, the same kind of projection we are said to confront in the after-death bardo and, for that matter, the kind we confront every day.

Which brings us to the best, funniest, weirdest thing in the film: Willie’s workforce, the army of a hundred-and-twenty-something identical Oompa Loompas, played with splendid, implacable deadpan by the 4’4″ Indian-Kenyan actor Deep Roy. (He was one of the intergalactic musicians in the saloon scene in Return of the Jedi.) As each kid is dispatched to his or her ugly fate, the Oompa Loompas-Roy multiplied by digital magic-perform a kaleidoscopic musical number that’s an elaborate send-up of the offending klesha, in which the performers are kings, clowns, cooks, KISS, the Beatles, and whole Bollywood choruses, but never stop being mockingly, irreducibly Roy. Here’s the film’s dharma heart: its expos� of our ridiculous presumption of being somebody, and of how that presumption becomes the root of our suffering. Having already deconstructed the notion of God, the film uses the endless cloning of Oompa Loompas as a reductio ad absurdum of the notion of self. Yeah, sure, you’re unique—just like everyone else. We’re all more-or-less identical loompas of nobody, oompah’ing around in a grand, silly display of everybody.

This blowing away of the twin obscurations of God and self leaves the path clear for young Charlie Bucket, the only one of the five children to make it through the bardo tour, Survivor style, without succumbing to its illusory traps. With too much natural compassion to indulge in self-grasping and too much penetrating wisdom to engage in blind Wonka-worship (offering some gentle pointers in management style instead), Charlie is appointed Willie’s successor. So the meek really will inherit the earth. The true heir to the moody, sporadically wrathful God, to whom we once upon a time abdicated control of our world (our chocolate factory, our sporadically malfunctioning happiness factory), is the practical, loving bodhisattva—that is, us at our best. From the moment, early on, when he offers to give his golden ticket to his grandfather or sell it to help support his hungry family, Charlie Bucket embodies bodhicitta, the spirit of selfless engagement in the world, which transforms even the slop bucket of poverty into the bucket-runneth-over of love and prosperity. Thirteen-year-old Freddie Highmore (who also appeared with Depp in Finding Neverland) is the rare child actor who can portray such virtue without going all gooey; he skillfully conveys the sense of quietly being it rather than overworking at doing it.

The film ends on that note of enlightened triumph, but by then the darker undertones have been so strong that we walk out humming a tune of ambivalence. Is the idea of an all-powerful Papa God tempting or insulting? Is Mister Rogers wisdom and comfort incarnate or kinda creepy? Is Michael Jackson the glamorous king of pop or a child molester? Am I becoming a clear-eyed bodhisattva or dancing yet again the dizzying Oompa Loompa dance of redundant selves? Will I meditate now or eat some more chocolate? Probably both.

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