Thursday, May 1, 2008

Schadenfreude for the Kiddies

Oompa Loompa doom pa dee do, I've got another puzzle for you...

Why has the 1971 kids' film Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory become such a cultural touchstone and cult classic?

Yesterday I was reading Pure Imagination, director Mel Stuart's book on the making of the film. He ponders this very question.

"The key is that it was never made for children—it was made for adults and an adult senseof humor. Deep down I think it caught on because it's cynical and it's not a kiddie film," he wrote. "Almost everybody in the picture—the parents, the kids, everybody except Charlie and Grandpa Joe are rather rotten people. But that's the attraction."

Suddenly it dawned on me. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory is confectionary Schadenfreude for kids. Sure, Entertainment Weekly called the movie the "video equivalent of an overstuffed comforter" in 1995, but they added that the audience could "gloat at the well-deserved punishment of a medley of kids so nasty they make the Menendez brothers look like the Von Trapps."

There is nothing saccharine about this film's candy man. In his care, each child but Charlie comes to an unpleasant fate--turning into a giant blueberry, getting stuck in a tube full of liquid chocolate, or being dropped down a chute with the bad eggs, for example. That is the very draw of the movie.

Roger Ebert reviewed the film by saying, "Kids are not sugar and spice, not very often, and they appreciate the poetic justice when a bad kid gets what's coming to him."

Sure sounds like Schadenfreude to me.