AN EMPIRE OF ONE

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Workers Leaving the Factory: Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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Near the beginning of the 2005, Tim Burton directed film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka fires all of his workers. One might expect the film’s resolution to include at least a token gesture towards a return to the level of employment of the locals that existed at the film’s start. But if you did expect this, you would be disappointed, for even though Charlie ends up winning the factory, even though his grandfather was one of the fired workers, in the end no one suggests that the workers should or will get their jobs back. In fact, the issue is completely forgotten by the film, as if it were never an issue to begin with. If it were raised, the big question would be: what happens to the Oompah Loompahs, the scabs Wonka hires to replace the fired workers, bringing them in from a mysterious country that apparently only he knows about? (They don’t work for peanuts; they work for cocoa beans!) The film gives every indication that the Oompah Loompahs will continue to work in the factory. They appear to be happy. They sing, they dance,  obeying Wonka’s every command. Happy workers, are, after all, irreplaceable.

Is the disappearance of this issue an indicator of something larger than the film? Perhaps a sign of how the filmmakers regard laborers? Or does it reflect the concerns of our society itself?

Charlie wins the factory despite not knowing that he’s in a contest and the factory is the prize. The kids that lose are all portrayed as worthy losers. Why are they unworthy? Because they disobey Wonka. It’s that simple. unlike the singing and dancing Oompah Loompahs, the kids will not make good workers because they don’t take orders very well. They act according to their own desires which make them seem like sinners worthy of punishments that would not be out of place in Dante’s Inferno. Happy workers they will not grow up to be. Charlie, however, does not disobey Wonka. Proving he has what it takes to be a happy worker, Charlie wins the contest, but becomes, somewhat paradoxically, much more than just another happy worker. He becomes the factory’s owner.

The ultimate lesson of the film? Suck it up to your boss and you will get far. Very far, indeed! On the other hand, if you don’t follow orders, if you upset the boss in some way, expect to be replaced by an Oompah Loompah. Not exactly the lesson you would expect from a Tim Burton film, is it? (Perhaps not. I’ve already written how another one of his films, The Nightmare Before Christmas, which ends up sending a surprisingly conservative message. But perhaps it’s just the Hollywood tendency to make conservative films, which I’ve written about here.)

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Written by David Kilmer

January 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm

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