It’s not a coincidence that the glorious golden ticket needed to board the Polar Express run by Tom Hanks’s magical train conductor is almost identical to the glorious golden ticket needed to enter the ‘non-pollutionary, anti-institutionary, pro-confectionery factory of fun’ run by Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. In the 23 years between Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express (2004), the golden ticket became Hollywood’s ultimate expression of that chance we all want, but so few of us ever get, to realize our greatest ambitions. As Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) sings: ‘I never thought my life could be / Anything but catastrophe / But suddenly I begin to see / A bit of good luck for me / ‘Cause I’ve got a golden ticket!’
Children’s stories frequently suggest that, aside from being unsavoury, greed and self-promotion generally go un-rewarded. But the golden ticket tells us otherwise: Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner) gets his because he is a glutton and Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole) gets hers because she is spoiled and her parents are wealthy. Had we not read the book, or seen the trailer, there are times during Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory when we would genuinely believe that Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) will never open a Wonka Bar to find that special prize. When he does, in that thrilling moment when he feels himself (and, by extension, we imagine ourselves) catapulted from ordinary to extraordinary, the film delivers a lesson: life is often better for the rich, and the privileged frequently have a monopoly on opportunity, but just occasionally that big break can come to someone like us.
The ticket’s colour is crucial. Gold, of course, connotes wealth and therefore happiness, and – whether we dream of wedding rings or Oscars or Olympic gold medals – it is so often the colour that accompanies achievement. Roald Dahl understood this when he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and he understood it when he wrote the screenplay for this film adaptation. In Charlie’s golden ticket, he created the perfect passport to our dreams.