Willy Wonka: A Millennial’s Guide to Economics

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The classic 1971 musical-film, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory is a period piece set in London during the Great Depression. Wait; usually a Depression is set in America. Come to think of it, there are computers and television in the film—those are post-war fancies. One of my favorite scenes involves a technician with a back-talking computer that won’t cheat the precise location of the Golden Ticket. The technician is British. Charlie’s teacher is British. The urban locations were actually shot in Munich. Charlie is American, the newscasters are American, Wonka seems to be American as well. Maybe this is intentional to create a more universal sense of place. But since everybody is white, it’s only really speaking to Western society.

Art by Nishizono

This may seem like a careless analysis, but I could start at any point in the movie. You have seen this film many times. It is a staple to your cultural perspective, if you are from Generation X or Millennial, because it is the most subversive G-Rated film you saw at a young age, it was at every video store, and your Baby Boomer parents remember it quite well because they did acid to it in 1971, and they wanted to blow your mind with it. It’s not that it was a blockbuster hit; it just has lasting power. It has me thinking hard now some twenty years later.

But we can’t just move on with this setting mystery looming over our head. Simplify it then. It takes place on Planet Earth in modern political times. Right. It has a way of seamlessly avoiding the precise location of Wonka’s factory, but it’s revealed that it’s within walking distance from Charlie’s route—weird scene early on depicts knife sharpener creep dude saying “nobody goes in, nobody goes out.”

Poor Charlie Bucket is taken care of by his single Mother, working in some pre-industrial laundry room with washboards and buckets. Charlie is becoming a young man with his first ever paper route. He buys a loaf of bread to go with the cabbage water for dinner that his Mother provides. Their poverty appears ludicrous next to the opening sequence, “The Candy Man Can,” where Charlie basically misses out on all the free candy that all the other kids are having.

At Least They Got TV

The grandparents, aunt and uncle just waste space in bed as if to represent Depression itself. But Charlie has real affection for Grandpa Joe, notably when he pushes tobacco on him and he turns it down. It makes me think of that naive false altruism that seems to be rampant among the poor—a virtue that is more self-destructive than creative. Charlie’s hunt for the Golden Ticket is given an encouraging morale boost from Grandpa, “You’ll win because nobody wants it more than you.” When the hunt begins for the Golden Ticket, you’re taken around the world where every other kid is enjoying economic opportunities nowhere close to the abject poverty of the Bucket Family.

Enter the spoiled brats; kids with everything and not a fart to give the world. First there is Augustus, the benign German fat boy that takes a bite out of a microphone, and son of a successful Butcher. Second up but perhaps the most memorable is English girl, Veruca Salt, heir to a wealthy snack tycoon (Salt’s Peanuts) and so god-awfully selfish that only her Father truly tops it, since he monopolizes the supply of Wonka bars. This gains access to Wonka’s factory, let alone Wonka himself, and gains the “love” of his daughter. Every capitalist knows that would be a significant return on investment. Here you can already see the economic themes building.

Next up, Violet Beauregard, the self-congratulatory nitwit American gum chewer loud mouth daughter of an Automobile Dealer. She may be the loudest and yet most benign of them so far. Then Mike Teavee, the kid that is obsessed with television and guns, from suburban Arizona. His seeming middle-class parents have no positive or cultural influence over him.

The commonality between these characters and their parents is a lack of responsibility and relationship with their kid. They also seem to be only-children, you know, without siblings, but that may only be implied. The kids disrespect their folks, order them around, get all their desires met, and show no apparent sign of maturing into young adults. Whereas Charlie, his family may be poor, totally lacking savvy, and somehow stuck in a Depression all to their own, they seem to respect one another, and accept whatever fortune may come their way. This forced Charlie to become a young man. The scene is set. We are all rooting for him.

Then Charlie wins the ticket. All hell breaks loose. Oh, and let’s remember Slugworth. Note the labels on his chocolate in the candy store—boring and unimaginative. You know the ending, so I’ll remind you that Wonka sets these kids up with a chance to share factory secrets, especially, the Everlasting Gobstopper. And these are indeed closely guarded secrets. Make no mistake. Wonka is a big time industrialist. But he seems to be independent, as it were, not a Nestlé type. At the time the original book was written, as well as this film, no corporation existed on the scale of contemporary Nestlé, or for that matter, Kraft.

First to get knocked off is Augustus, the boy with no personality but a suit large enough to support two men. He drowns in a river of chocolate. He never even sees the Everlasting Gobstopper. Then goes Violet Beauregard, the gum chewer who couldn’t resist trying the five-course meal. She goes out as an ever-expanding blueberry.

Charlie nearly gets it. Here is the unique case. Charlie acts as prompted by his Grandfather, his elder, and so is a mere accomplice. But as he floats toward the fan powered by fizzy lifting drinks, you knew it would be the bloodiest spectacle witnessed in the film. However, they belch their way back down. All is well.

Next to go is Veruca Salt—which is long overdue by this time. She is the bad egg, the one that can’t get the golden goose and throws a tantrum. And so she falls into the bad egg bin of death. Then goes Mike Teavee, who doesn’t die per se; he just succumbs to the undeniable urge to be on television. And so he is miniaturized into oblivion. What keeps it G-Rated is Wonka’s assurance that they all have a 50/50 chance at survival.

With all the kids knocked off, Wonka thanks Charlie and let’s them go, without the promised lifetime supply of chocolate. Then there is the fantastic scene where everything in his office is in halves. Joe demands the chocolate and Wonka screams at them instead.  Wonka is wondering how he is going to clean up the death of four children, surely he’s a little on edge. But Charlie does the one thing Wonka wanted: return the Gobstopper. Charlie knew that this would betray Wonka, even though he was kind of a dick. “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” And that does it, Wonka’s other half is fulfilled and Charlie inherits the empire. His family is saved by an industrialist. Then Wonka reveals the floating glass elevator, and they live happily ever after.

Let’s go back and consider Wonka’s factory for a moment. Beverages that cause anti-gravity, gum that cause enemies to explode, terror-generating environments (the psychedelic rowing scene), materials that last forever, teleportation technology, geese that lay gold, the UFO-like glass elevator, and an apparently self-sufficient edible biosphere environment. The secrets of Wonka are made paramount to the motivation of people in their global fervor to win the Golden Ticket. Hilarious scenes, like a woman whose husband is being held ransom for her case of Wonka bars—and she has to stop and think about it. These are military style secrets to cause such espionage.

There is no way that Government forces could ignore Wonka, unless he managed to keep it all under wraps, or, unless he worked with the government. Or else he’s holding the technology against the government. In which case, he must be a revolutionary in favor of free democracy. Not so, because he went on this search to find a child that would learn his business and ask no questions, with complete loyalty and the will to become Wonka.

I’ll be honest, I’m unclear, because I had a much more positive view when I first conceived of this essay. I wanted to stress Charlie’s honesty, integrity, and how that earned him the keys to a magical empire. But then I got to thinking about Wonka. He is apparently unmarried, lives in the factory, and entirely concerned with his business. The more I analyze him, the more he looks like a sociopath.

I start to worry for Charlie, because he’s naïve, he’s a poor boy; his family always had complacence combined with moral virtue. Wonka is clever, a mastermind. Fake-Slugworth was planted at every location of the winning ticket. It seems to be a massive hoax funded by the temporary monopoly of the chocolate market—a plot to cause diabetes in the foolish. One goal in mind: find an impressionable child to become his spitting image to carry out the business forever. That is why Wonka did the contest.

Of course, it is all a story. The mystery behind the turn of events is the glue to the pages that keep it bound. I am referring to the 1964 Ronald Dahl book of the same title that the film was inspired from. The Author was a Commander of the British Air Force in WWII, and became a best-selling Author in the post-war years. He knows something about military secrets. And this may be the crux of my interest in the whole story.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the assumption of power that the United States has taken since the end of WWII. Cultural values in America have permanently changed since that time, with propaganda-violence as a profitable form of entertainment. Where the will of the people is not reflected in the legislation. Censorship and wiretapping has become commonplace. We are beginning to take on the same features of Fascist Germany. We gained Germany’s secrets and continued developing what the Nazis started, but this time for good–or so they say. We understand how power corrupts, and yet we are concerned with being the most powerful nation.

Hitler’s military technology was more advanced than any other in the world. European forces just came together with an unscathed United States and outnumbered the Germans, who were spread far too thin. The U.S.S.R. gained the other half of the secrets. The two have been employing them against one another ever since, and there is no greater expression to that than the Space Race. That race developed all the key missile systems in use today. This idea is not well researched and so could come off as a flimsy conclusion, but here it goes.

Wonka is Hitler. That would be a wild way to go but actually, this is my take. Wonka represents the American mad man from the post-war Baby Boomer generation that created tremendous technologies, entrepreneurism, and social progress. Charlie represents the generation being handed the keys to the most abundant, creative, strange, mesmerizing, cut throat empire the world has ever seen: Post-Modern America.

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Willy Wonka depicted as Steve Jobs

I am a millennial and I relate to Charlie. My world is bleak yet mesmerizing all the same. It’s a world full of automation and high definition media all the time. Yet the whole structure of it, the economy and culture driving it has vastly split the rich from the poor — Charlie lives in his own Depression despite seeing others swimming in candy. My generation is being handed the keys to a vehicle that hasn’t got any gas in it. In other words, the only way to get out of it is to join the elite, no questions asked.

If I take anything from it, it’s that we have to make friends with guys like Wonka, who value honesty and integrity, but beware of the existing world of deathtraps that his generation created for us to work through. We, the Millennials and late Gen X just entering management, have to push through the crash course and come out on top to inherit the kingdom. But beware again; we will soon be setting the deathtraps, inheriting the mania that capitalist-industrialism requires for continuation. Personally, I just want simple social equity and I don’t care about any kingdom.

By 1973, two years after Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and nearly ten years from the book release, a follow-up was published, written by Dahl, The Great Glass Elevator. I have not read this sequel.

In 2006, Johnny Depp took the role of Willy Wonka in a remake. I have not seen it and I thought it would compromise the integrity of this essay. After all, it is Gene Wilder that makes the film a real accomplishment. To be fair, I think the film is a masterpiece. Even to the effects, the sets, and the songs, but Gene Wilder is the only choice and I assume that Depp really overplays the character. Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis could handle the role. It’s too late for that though, unless The Great Glass Elevator is made.

I went to the classic 1930’s Art Deco Kiggin’s Theater in Vancouver, WA to watch it for only $2 (every Tuesday), on a real film print. I include photos of the theater.




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