Charlie/Willy Wonka CAGE MATCH

This particular debate has been bouncing about in my head for some time now, so I figured I’d settle this once and for all.

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) was a favorite book of mine as a kid. My fifth grade teacher read it to us a chapter a day (which was agonizing since every chapter ends with a cliffhanger) and I fell in love with it, reading it many many more times after that.

Side note: If you want to have a crazy evening that doesn’t involve mind-altering substances, check out Dahl’s completely bonkers sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972) which has Charlie going into space and meeting strange and vicious creatures.

But anyways, the first book now exists in two movie forms. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) has become a children’s classic due in large part to Gene Wilder’s fabulously unhinged performance as the mad chocolatier, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) is a very faithful rendering of the original book filtered through the wacky lens of Tim Burton.

When I first saw Willy Wonka, I didn’t care for it much. In my opinion, too much was changed from its source material (Roald Dahl himself also quite disliked this adaptation as well, even though he wrote the screenplay for it). On the other hand, I loved the Tim Burton version for its textual faithfulness and colorful sets. Now, the general public thinks just the opposite with the Gene Wilder version becoming THE version of the story everyone knows and loves, and the Tim Burton version being dismissed as “weird” and “creepy” by almost every kid I’ve asked.

So, which is really better? Well join me in the chocolate factory and we’ll find out.

Both tell the same general story: a genius chocolate maker who has been operating in secret has finally decided to open his factory up to whichever five children find the golden tickets he has hidden in his candy bars. They turn out to be Augustus Gloop, a portly child with an insane appetite; Violet Beauregarde, a little girl with an odd passion for chewing gum; Veruca Salt, a spoiled girl who has her father on a very tight leash; Mike Teavee, a hyperactive child who lives in front of the television set; and Charlie Bucket, a kind boy who lives with his poor family and who has grown up idolizing Willy Wonka. As they go through the wonderful factory, the nasty children are picked off one at a time by their own greed and naughty behavior.

So, first how are the two films different? Join me in the Comparison Room!

Well, oddly enough, Willy Wonka focuses more on Charlie, spending more time establishing his hopes and dreams and his family life. Charlie feels more like a child in this one, a kid who wants to be like everyone else but who also wants to help his family out of their financial troubles. Willy Wonka, on the other hand is an eccentric (but genius) chessmaster manipulating the group of kids in order to test them. This film also spends more time satirizing consumer culture with a series of short vignettes detailing the ridiculous lengths people go to to hold on to their Wonka bars.

Charlie focuses more on Wonka himself, painting him as much more of a damaged man whose painful relationship with his father has prevented him from moving on. The factory tour is less of a game and more of an attempt at socializing and showing off everything he’s created. Wonka loves his work, but something is missing and it isn’t until he meets Charlie that he’s able to pin down what it is. Charlie in this film is much more mature and noble. He’s quite serious, but his adult-child personality is a good foil for Wonka’s child-adult personality. Tonally, this version of the story is much more similar to the book and feels more like a fairy tale rather than a cultural satire, turning the kids into the archetypes they were meant to be.

And now into the Evaluation Room!

The Good

Willy Wonka gets the character of Willy Wonka down perfectly. Gene Wilder starts the movie the epitome of politeness and becomes, as we get to know him better, incredibly sarcastic. As a kid, you’re terrified of him until he reveals his gentler side at the end, and as an adult, you wish you could be half as blunt and sharp as he in your daily dealings with the crazies of the world. This is definitely one of Gene Wilder’s best roles, up there with the incomparable Young Frankenstein.

This version has a much more clever script as well. One scene that I think was cut from the TV version I saw as a kid had a woman sobbing to a police offer about her kidnapped husband, but when the kidnapper calls and asks for her case of Wonka bars in ransom, she says she’ll have to think things over. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it vignette (one of many like it), but it’s brilliant, and this version is filled with many whip-sharp moments like that.

I also like most of the songs. They’re well placed and rarely slow the pace of the film down. Even though the singers aren’t all Broadway-perfect, they perform the songs with exhuberance. “Pure Imagination,” especially, has become a sort of anthem to our childhoods in recent years.

Moving on, Charlie is visually a lot of fun. The decade-old computer graphics are a bit cartoony by today’s standards, but it works with the tone of the story. Scenes like the Chocolate Room, the boat ride, and the Inventing Room are lush and colorful.

Danny Elfman’s score is perhaps a lot like the other film scores he composed around that time, but it’s still beautiful and otherworldly. I especially like the pounding main theme that plays over the opening credits. Also, the Oompa Loompa songs are taken directly from the book, unlike the first movie, restoring Dahl’s creepy cautionary tales to their rightful place.

I also really like the actors in this one. The kids are all perfect, especially Mike Teavee. You get the feeling that, were he not an ungrateful little twerp, he would be basically Sherlock Holmes as a kid. And even though Charlie is a bit too serious for my liking, he fits into the world of the story very well. Plus, this one has the best portrayal of Charlie’s family. All four grandparents have distinct personalities, and both his parents are present with his father working in a toothpaste factory as he did in the book.

The Bad

Willy Wonka does suffer from cardboard-set-itis at times, and some of the effects haven’t aged well, especially the Wonkavator hovering above the town, looking suspiciously like a Christmas ornament hanging on a string. I also don’t really care for the Oompa Loompa songs (I may get flack for this) as they take Dahl’s clever Oompa Loompa poems and simplify them to the point where there’s no nuance. They feel less like lessons and more like lectures.

Also, the first half of the movie feels like a completely different entity than the second half. The first half is a biting satire on consumerism in which we also establish Charlie’s life at home, and the second, the factory tour, is the children playing Wonka’s brilliant elimination game. The two halves are brilliant in their own ways, but they don’t really gel together.

Charlie can be criticized for being all flash and no substance (much like many Tim Burton films aimed at younger audiences). Visually, it’s gorgeous as only Tim Burton can manage, but because it feels less real, there’s less of a connection to the characters. Fun though they are, they’re not quite as human. The sequences showing how the public went crazy for the Wonka bars doesn’t have the same wry truth of the other version. Also the dark humor of this script is fun, but feels a bit less satisfying when compared to the biting wit and satire of the other film.

Also, as much as I like Freddie Highmore, I think he’s tendency towards seriousness sort of robs the actual finding of the golden ticket of a lot of the childlike glee of the other film. We never really get the idea that he REALLY wants that ticket. He’s too practical to really want it, after all, but we do know that, if it happened, he would appreciate it.

And now to the Conclusions Room!

The Verdict

While both films are a lot of fun, and I enjoy them both for different reasons, I’m going to have to award the winning medal to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

“And that, dear children, is how it’s done.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a more faithful rendering of the original novel, establishing more of Wonka’s mythology as Roald Dahl wrote it (the Indian prince story, the trip to Loompaland, etc.) but Willy Wonka has more laugh-out-loud moments and Wilder’s performance is just so much fun that it never gets old. He goes from gentleman to villain to trickster to benevolent father figure, and it all seems completely natural to him.

Plus, the script in general is so chock full of little tidbits that it really rewards repeat viewings. From the brief absurdist vignettes scattered throughout the beginning to Wonka’s many mumbled literary quotations (I could have done a whole post just on those), it’s a much snappier viewing experience, and one that is much more quotable and useful in daily life. Depp’s Wonka is amusing and has a killer wardrobe, but Wilder’s Wonka feels like the iconic portrayal of the character.

And so, I tip my hat to you and wish you well until we meet again next week!

…and madame!

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