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.

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