The Psychology of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

In 1971, one of the best achievements in film was released. That is, obviously, an opinion, but one I share with many. It's been 45 years since the film released and it's still such a fantastic example of film that we're still talking about it and dissecting it today. Few films have that kind of power. "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" was a mainstay in my household growing up. The colorful rooms of the factory, the wonders hidden deep inside and the infectious songs were (and largely still are) a perfect recipe for a successful children's film. But as I grew older, I began to realize that "Willy Wonka..." isn't a children's film at all. In fact, when really dissected, it's a bit messed up.   

Willy Wonka, as a character, is a fascinating study. Before we ever get to the factory and meet the eccentric entrepreneur, we're told consistently how Willy Wonka is a caring, nice, and loving person. In the ever popular song "The Candyman", he's described as mixing his chocolate with love to make the world taste good. Grandpa Joe describes him as a victim of other companies employing spies to steal his candy making secrets. We're even made to feel bad for him. After the alleged recipe thieves infiltrated his factory; he closed the doors. "No one goes in, nobody comes out" Grandpa Joe tells Charlie.  

Deep down, Willy Wonka may be a good person. Isolating yourself from the rest of the world, with only your inventions and the Oompa Loompa's as your company would be enough to drive anyone a bit mad. But the version of Willy Wonka we're presented with is a man at the end of his rope. Someone who may realize that he's beginning to lose his grip on his own mind. We're presented with countless examples of this throughout the film (using a pair of dirty shoes in his recipe's to give it a "kick" and a jacket in another because it was "too cold"). With this realization, Wonka does the only thing that makes sense to him, he invites 5 children and one of their family members to "tour" his factory; with the hope that he'll find a worthy replacement/slave/employee to take his place. And that's where the madness really begins. 

The children of the story are equally as awful as Wonka. Augustus Gloop, a large German boy who takes after his gluttonous father, was possibly the easiest target for Wonka. He's already overweight and shows no constraint when it comes to eating (like his father, who eats the top of a microphone when placed in front of his face). Veruca Salt, who is the definition of a spoiled brat. She's so accustomed to getting exactly what she wants, when she wants it, that's there's an entire song predicated on that ("I Want It Now"). Her father, the owner of a factory of his own, has obviously done well for himself, routinely pulling out his checkbook to give Veruca whatever she wants. He even closes his factory and instructs his workers to do nothing but open boxes and boxes of the Wonka bars in order to give Veruca that Golden Ticket. Violet Beauregarde, who, on surface level, only has an addiction of chewing gum. While it's not inherently wrong to chew gum, obviously, just more of an annoyance than anything else; it's her arrogance and superiority complex that's the true culprit. In her case, it seems as if she's been neglected, and uses any opportunity she can to "show off" or rebel. Her father is a politician, but is more known for his Car Dealership (mainly because he incessantly talks about it). Even when Veruca wins the Golden Ticket, he tries marketing himself. Mike Teevee (aptly named) has an issue with reality. His sole reliance on the worlds portrayed on TV gives him a skewed view of what the world really holds. His parents even make sure he has TV Dinners ready so he doesn't have to sit at the table and eat dinner, he can just watch shows.  

The recurring theme here are the kids being awful, but the parents enabling them to be awful. These are all children who, if left to their own, would grow up to be useless, terrible adults. But the parents are the ones really at fault here. And Wonka makes sure they know that throughout the tour. Whether it's by the songs the Oompa Loompa's sing (warnings, more like) or by systematically murdering their children (make no mistake, those kids are dead, but we'll get to that). The only child who isn't a horrendous person is Charlie.

Charlie Buckets, the "hero" of the story and the one we're meant to pull for, also has a flaw. Entitlement. He's poor, he grew up poor, and he feels like he's meant to find that Golden Ticket. This line of thinking isn't entirely his fault, either. Grandpa Joe makes sure Charlie feels entitled to it, telling him he deserves it more than everyone else because he wants more than everyone else. This is what I call a "projection flaw". Charlie never really shows that he feels entitled, but Grandpa Joe certainly does; and since Charlie's father is out of the picture (likely when he realized he'd have to take care of his wife and kid, plus her parents and uncle all under the same roof, even though they're perfectly capable of working) so Charlie's biggest role model he has is Grandpa Joe. We're never given any backstory on why Grandpa Joe or Grandma Georgina can't work any longer. All we know is they've been bedridden for years now, while Charlie's mother works multiple jobs to put food on the table. Even Charlie picks up a Paper Route in order to help out (something Grandpa Joe is adamentaly against, yet he refuses to get up and help). Grandpa Joe even admits how unfair it is that he buys tobacco while Charlie has to work.  It's the mentality that someone else should take care of him; that he's entitled to that, that gives Charlie his flaw. Again, enabled by the adult. 

So when Charlie finds some money on the ground, and uses that money to buy a Wonka bar that ultimately has the last Golden Ticket, we meet Mr. Slugworth. Mr. Slugworth, being at every child's home when they find the Golden Ticket (and creepily whispering something in their ear, mind you) tells me that the tickets weren't random. Somehow, Wonka knew exactly who would find the tickets, as did Mr. Slugworth. We know that the point of the Golden Tickets were to find a child to take over Wonka's factory, so what happens if an adult finds one? That was clearly a risk Wonka wasn't willing to take. The whole thing was setup.

Once Charlie gets home and tells his family that he found the last Golden Ticket and that he could take one family member with him, Grandpa Joe finds that he can actually walk just fine. In fact, he's as limber as a young man. The song he and Charlie sing is incredibly catchy and incredibly frustrating. It's a brilliant song (as they all are), but watching this man, who couldn't muster enough energy to do anything of substance for his family for years, jump around the tiny house they live in shows how entitled he is. He couldn't work, but give him an opportunity to get an inside look at one of the greatest wonders the world has seen and he suddenly has loads of energy. 

The first time we see Willy Wonka, he has a cane and a hobble. It's not the man anyone expected to see come out of that factory. He's a relatively young man, sporting a tailcoat and tophat. With his frizzy hair sticking out from under his hat, he looks mad, but also broken. Getting closer to the gate, his cane suddenly sticks to the ground and he tumbles forward into a front flip, obviously not needing the cane. This is a pivotal moment that often gets overlooked. From this point forward, you have no idea if what Wonka says or does is a lie. The deception of the cane and the hobble sets the stage for what's to come inside the factory. You can never fully trust him. 

That's key, because for this film to work, you can't fully trust him. The first red flag should've been the moment the children and their parents get into the factory. The first thing Wonka has them do is sign a contract nobody can actually read. If anyone refused to sign, they wouldn't be allowed to go any further. He then leads them into a corridor and a hallway, likely with the intent on disorienting them because the hallway gets smaller and tighter the further in you walk. So tight in fact, that nobody can move. These first few moments we get with Wonka are pivotal pieces to figuring out who he is. Everything he's done so far has been deceptive in one form or another. He even pretends that he's not sure where to go from there, fumbling around the walls "trying" to find the door to lead them out. Nobody is happy, but that feeling is quickly gone once Wonka finds the door.

The next room is one of the most magnificent things anyone has ever seen (including the viewers, the set they built was astonishing). The room was bursting with color, and had an actual chocolate river, churned by a huge chocolate waterfall. It was magical. To top it all of, everything in the room was "eatable/edible" according to Wonka. He invites everyone to taste anything and everything in the room, prompting the best song in the film by far (and in this author's opinion, the best song in any musical to date) in "Pure Imagination". The song is about being hopeful, about believing that you can do anything you want, as long as you have imagination. It's a fantastic song and somewhat indicative of how Wonka has come as far as he has. The room is the embodiment of "Pure Imagination". But, this room is where Wonka really starts to show his colors.

Augustus Gloop, poor kid, simply couldn't control himself. An entire room made of candy, where even the grass is edible, was going to be too much for him. Once he spots the chocolate river, it was over. He begins drinking from it, falls in, and gets sucked up a giant tube that leads to the fudge room. This is where we get our first glimpse of who Willy Wonka really is. The blatant apathy about Augustus fate is apparent in the stark contrast of situations. While Augustus is on land, drinking out of the river with his hands, Wonka is desperate for him to stop "you must not do that, my chocolate must never be touched by human hands" he says as he tries everything he can to reach the boy. But once the boy falls in, his mother says "don't just stand there, do something". The next line is from Wonka is the definition of sarcasm and apathy as he says "help... police... murder...". He clearly doesn't care about the fate of the boy, just his "beautiful chocolate". The rest of the group even begins to worry, as Augustus falls deeper into the liquid, obviously drowning, Wonka opens a piece of candy and says "well, it's too late", curiosity now taking hold of him. Once Augustus gets stuck in the pipe, the ecstatic look on Wonka's face and glee in his voice shows how much he wants this to happen. It's a bit disturbing considering he knows what will happen to the poor boy. "The suspense is terrible... I hope it'll last". The Oompa Loompa's sing a catchy song about how unbecoming it is for a person to get fat, and the group moves on without a second thought of Augustus. Although, that's not entirely true.

The next scene is infamous for giving thousands of children nightmares. It's a terrifying scene, to be sure. The boat ride through the tunnel. Why such a tunnel exists, who knows. Maybe it was to scare the rest of the group into obedience, after watching Wonka just sit idly by as a young man gets murdered, maybe he needed to scare them into submission. The boat ride shows visions of giant insects crawling over someones face, a chicken getting its head cut off, disease infested flies settling on a mans eye. It's not pleasant, but not even the most unsettling part about this scene. If you look closely, the boat has the exact number of seats required to carry the rest of the group. Wonka knew Augustus (or someone in the group) would die before they get to the next part of the tour, otherwise, there should be two empty seats on the boat for Augustus and his mother. Instead, we see the exact number of seats for the exact number of people left on the tour. And this isn't the last time we see this. Again, none of this random, Wonka knows exactly what's happening and he's planned it all out to perfection.

Throughout the tour, Wonka speaks in gibberish, most likley to keep the group on edge. The gibberish is often a combination of German, French and Latin that he combines so well that it's almost unrecognizable, and is surely unintelligible.

Next, we come to the "Inventing Room". But before they get inside, Wonka reiterates that old Mr. Slugworth wants his secrets, and that nobody should be touching anything inside the room. He looks around the room to each of the kids in the group, but his eyes settle on Violet and don't move. He seems to be talking directly to her. He knows how crazy about gum she is, and what do you know, the special invention he wants to show everyone IS.... gum. The gum is special in the sense that it's a three course meal (which, come on, would be amazing!). He holds the gum up for everyone to see, but he's actually just baiting Violet. When she takes the gum from his hand, he says "I wouldn't do that, I really wouldn't" but watch the expression on his face. As she walks away, the camera follows her, but it keeps Wonka in its sight, and he seems to allow a smirk to grace his face. Again, he knows exactly what he's doing. We all know what happens, she eats the gum, blows up into a blueberry and has to be rolled away by the Oompa Loompas to the "squeezing room". How does Wonka try to stop her? By sitting down and lazily saying "stop... don't..." He even indicates that this wasn't the first child to die for his candy making cause. When Violet's father is pleading for him to do something for his daughter, Wonka is busy stressing over the fact that the gum has the same defect. He says "it happens every time, they all turn into blueberries...". Given his deep love for the Oompa Loompa's, I can't imagine he'd test the gum on one of them, so who is he talking about? Another Oompa Loompa song about the dangers of having bad manners (and equating that to chewing gum) and we're off to another death trap.

Once we've made it to the room with the giant geese laying the giant golden eggs, we have an idea of who's going to die next. A golden egg for a spoiled brat. Makes sense, touché Wonka. After Veruca's song and dance about how she wants everything and that she wants it now, she finds herself standing on the device that tests whether the eggs are good or bad. You can probably figure out which one she turned out to be. Wonka, calmly says "she was a bad egg". and when Veruca's father asks where the trap door leads, Wonka simply tells him "where all the other bad eggs go... down the garbage chute" her father, clearly hysterical laughs and asks where the garbage chute goes and Wonka, trying as hard as he possibly can to hold in his laughter, says "where all the garbage goes, to the furnace". He says that with such glee and such a big smile on his face that you know he knows her father will follow. This goes back to the line "nobody goes in, nobody comes out". Another song from the Oompa Loompa's about how the parents are the ones to blame if kids are brats (which, ya know, is true...)

The group, now only having two kids and their parents, move onto the next room. Here we find another vehicle, and yet again, the vehicle has EXACTLY the number of seats for who's left in the group. A seat for Wonka, two for Mike Teevee and his mother and two for Charlie and his grandpa. I mean, come on Wonka... and the next room is even more of an obvious trap for one of the kids than any other room they've been to so far. Wonka has invented a new machine called "Wonkavision". Wonka thought to himself, if they can transmit a picture, why couldn't he do it with a bar of chocolate. This is, very obviously, a trap for Mike. From the beginning of the film, we've been told multiple times that he wants to be in TV. This is a bit of a tricky one as it doesn't necessarily kill Mike, but it makes him so small that the only way to put him back to normal would be to "stretch" him out. That's not how the body works.

The only kid left at the end of this nightmarish tour is Charlie Buckets, and the tour ends abruptly. Wonka thanks them for coming, shows them the general direction on how to leave the factory and apologizes because of how incredibly busy he is. Thrown off, Charlie and Grandpa Joe decide to go into Wonka's office to figure out what they did wrong. One of the best speeches ever put to film follows, where Wonka details exactly why Charlie doesn't get the lifetime supply of chocolate. "You STOLE Fizzy Lifting Drinks". Because they didn't follow the rules of the agreement they signed at the beginning of the tour, they "get NOTHING" (what a great speech and amazing performance by Gene Wilder). When Charlie, looking defeated, decides to give his Everlasting Gobstopper back to Wonka, Wonka has a change of heart. This entire tour was made to see if Charlie would give the Gobstopper back to Wonka instead of taking it to Slugworth (who, surprise surprise, wasn't actually Slugworth and was working with Wonka the entire time). He mentions that the Gobstopper was invented specifically for poor kids earlier in the tour because it lasts forever, you'd never have to buy another piece of candy again (Charlie is the definition of poor). If that was the entire point of the tour, then Charlie was obviously going to win it, specifically because none of the other kids were ever going to be given a chance to win. Wonka killed them all off well before they were given the opportunity to do the right thing. He then informs Charlie that he can move into the factory immediately and can also move his family in with him. What was the point? Wonka needed to find someone to take over the factory once he's gone. He couldn't get an adult to run the company, because an adult would only do what they wanted to do. He had to find a child to take over so Wonka could make him do exactly what he wants them to do. Sounds a bit like a slave.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is an incredible film, and an even more interesting study. When you look at the film in a slightly different light, the meaning and undertones of the film become vastly different than they were initially. It's a dark look at the mindset of a delusional genius. It's also a look into ignorance. Sure the kids are terrible, but they only know what they're parents allow them to know. The parents are worse than the kids in more than one area. And not just an ignorance on how to properly raise a child, but ignorance in general. When the "Golden Tickets" are out in the wild and everyone is hunting them, we're shown multiple adults doing and saying some truly asinine things. A news reporter says there are Golden Tickets being shipped out to "all 5 continents". Charlie's mother tells him his chances of finding one are slim because there are "100 billion people in the world". Even Charlie's teacher, who is teaching the class percentages (or at least attempting to) admits that he's not bright. He goes around the room asking the children how many Wonka Bars they bought and gives them a percentage of their chances to find a Golden Ticket. Charlie is poor, of course, so he only opened 2 bars, when his teacher realizes this, he says "2?! Well I can't figure out just 2... so we'll pretend you opened 200." The adults in this movie are portrayed as ignorant, pompous imbeciles. No wonder the children have no hope of being decent people.

It's been 45 years since the film was released, but it's still just as relevant today as it ever has been. Some of the questions that were raised in this film are still questions we're trying to answer today. Some of the behavioral issues the children had in the film are still behavioral issues kids have today. Willy Wonka is one of the few films that can hold up in terms of quality for so long, and there's no real reason why it won't continue to hold up.

What are your thoughts on the film? How badly traumatized are you from the boat scene? Let us know in the comments below.