Movie Curiosities: Wonka

In 1971, Warner Bros. brought us the iconic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which WB later remade by way of Tim Burton in 2005. WB re-upped the film rights for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 2016, buying them again from Roald Dahl’s estate. It took them another two years to hire a director (more on him later), presumably because they were at risk of losing the rights unless they actually made another movie.

Not much happened afterwards (likely because of the pandemic), but principal photography on the prequel Wonka began in September 2021. Incidentally, that’s almost the exact same time when Netflix outright bought the Roald Dahl Story Company. Which, I might add, makes extensive use of the Golden Ticket imagery in their opening bumper.

(Side note: As if we hadn’t seen enough signs of WB’s corporate incompetence in recent years, how in the nine hells did they lose out to freaking Netflix on that deal?!)

In other words, WB has done their damnedest to make sure that nobody else could make a Wonka adaptation to rival the Gene Wilder masterpiece. And when Netflix outmaneuvered them, they rushed a movie into production with the overexposed Timothee Chalamet starring in a prequel nobody asked for. And it won’t stop here. Until lawyers step in from Netflix or the Dahl estate, you can be damned sure that WB will do with Wonka what Sony keeps trying to do with Spider-Man: Churn out as many spin-offs as they can get away with and try to gaslight the populace at large into thinking that WB is the sole inventor and copyright owner of Willy Wonka.

There’s one reason and one reason only why I was willing to give this movie a chance: Director/Co-Writer Paul King. There were so many hundreds of times when I thought that Paddington and its sequel couldn’t possibly work, and this is all the shit I’ve had to eat as a direct result. If King thinks he can direct an origin story for Willy Wonka and make it worth our while, I’m not stupid enough to underestimate him again. There is nobody else in the entire world (except maybe James Bobin, after Dora and the Lost City of Gold) who might conceivably take this assignment and make it into anything viable. So, let’s see how he did.

We pick up with Wonka (Chalamet) after seven years traveling the world, gathering ingredients and perfecting his crafts of engineering, stage magic, and chocolaterie. He arrives at some unnamed big city all but completely penniless to try and make his fortune. Trouble is, he quickly ends up butting heads with the Chocolate Cartel (Slugworth, Prodnose, and Fickelgruber; respectively played by Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, and Mathew Baynton), three capitalist fat cat caricatures who are ostensibly business competitors, but they’ve made an alliance to keep anyone else from getting a foothold in the marketplace. What’s worse, the three of them have agreed to sell the simplest and most watered-down chocolates that the masses will buy, saving the most delectable truffles to bribe high-powered officials with. (Most notably the gluttonous chief of police and a two-faced cleric, respectively played by Keegan-Michael Key and Rowan Atkinson.)

But wait! There’s more!

With nowhere else to go, Wonka lodges with Scrubitt and Bleacher, respectively played by Olivia Colman and Tom Davis. In short order, these predatory landlords trick Wonka into a life of servitude in their laundry business. This is where Wonka meets his fellow indentured slaves — most notably the young orphan Noodle, played by Calah Lane — who will eventually become his associates and co-conspirators.

(Side note: I feel obliged to mention that never once does any kind of colored garment turn everything into a humorous color. Bit of a wasted opportunity, but I can understand why King wouldn’t have wanted to re-use a joke from Paddington 2.)

Oh, and there’s Hugh Grant playing an Oompa-Loompa named Lofty. Long story short, Wonka unknowingly screwed over the Oompa-Loompas during his travels throughout the world, and Lofty’s been tasked with following Wonka to make him pay for it. I kind of like how the traditionally racist origin story for the Oompa-Loompas has been inverted into a subtle jab at colonialism. Sure, Grant looks like he hates every second in the role, but it makes the character indignant in a way that adds to the comedy.

I suppose I should mention Sally Hawkins in the role of Wonka’s mother, but she’s more of an offscreen presence. Hawkins herself barely appears long enough to collect a paycheck, though she certainly doesn’t use that as an excuse to slack off.

Indeed, pretty much everyone in the cast is putting hard work into chewing scenery here. Luckily, we’ve got such comedic talents as Keegan-Michael Key, Matt Lucas, and Rowan Atkinson, all of whom are at their funniest and most comfortable when they can mug for the camera with no restraint whatsoever. And then we’ve got actors like Olivia Colman, Paterson Joseph, Tom Davis, and others who act like broad caricatures in a way that adds to the heightened tone well in keeping with Roald Dahl’s sensibilities.

At the same time, we’ve got Wonka’s poignant memories of his mother to help ground the film and give it some much-needed heart. We’ve also got Jim Carter on hand as a pragmatic accountant, level-headed enough to provide Wonka with the occasional much-needed reality check without overplaying the role and coming off as a closed-minded idiot.

But of course the major grounding influence is Noodle, effectively and dynamically played by Calah Lane as Wonka’s “straight man”. It’s Noodle who’s been brought low and forced into the gutters by the system she grew up in, and it’s Noodle who’s most dramatically changed by Wonka’s confectionery optimism. Noodle embodies the film’s themes in many ways, but she also embodies the film’s greatest strengths.

Put simply, this movie works for the same reasons Paddington and its sequel did.

Paul King has a remarkable talent for portraying the drudgery of modern society, complete with its arbitrary rules and seemingly unshakeable inertia. And then King drops in a protagonist who’s blissfully ignorant enough to challenge things the way they are, good-hearted enough to show kindness in a cruel world, and whimsical enough to brighten everyone’s day simply for having the courage to be themselves.

Which brings me to Timothee Chalamet in the role of Wonka himself. This portrayal may take some getting used to.

For one thing, it’s important to remember that we’re seeing a young Wonka fresh off the boat after so many years out seeing the world. That’s remarkably different from an older Wonka who’s spent the past few decades holed up in his factory and isolated from the outside world. We’re seeing a Wonka who’s hungry and ambitious with nothing to lose and everything to prove, not a Wonka with an established reputation as the world’s greatest candyman and a massive factory full of Oompa-Loompas to care for.

Up until now (aside from a few flashback scenes in the 2005 remake), the character of Wonka has only ever been defined by his factory. Who or what is Willy Wonka without his factory? It’s a question we’ve never really had to ask before, which certainly helps to make this take on the character fresh.

Of course Chalamet is no Gene Wilder — no actor will ever be another Gene Wilder, as so many actors keep learning the hard way. To wit, Chalamet doesn’t play Wonka as the kind of mad genius who would build a factory full of death traps and glibly abandon any self-absorbed nincompoops who disregard his warnings. I don’t exactly see Chalamet’s portrayal quoting John Masefield either.

That said, Chalamet does effectively portray Wonka as the kind of mad genius so lost in his own head that he’s more focused on how things should be, instead of how things are. Not only does it make the character endearingly naive, but it also helps to sell the character’s infectious optimism. Perhaps most importantly, literally nothing about this franchise works unless we believe that Wonka is brilliant and bonkers enough to make candy and inventions that shouldn’t be physically possible. Chalamet definitely sells that much, I’ll give him that.

The point being that this doesn’t really work as a prequel to the ’71 film, though that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from trying to position it as such. Of course Lofty and the other Oompa-Loompas are explicitly modeled after their ’71 precursors, but we also get various callbacks and familiar lines and musical leitmotifs sprinkled all throughout the film. The good news is that these callbacks are all cleverly utilized to help advance the story. The filmmakers seem acutely aware of how to use familiar references as a kind of emotional shorthand, and they’re careful to use it wisely.

In short, the references to the ’71 film work nicely as a condiment, rather than an entree. I respect and admire that. Overall, while Chalamet’s portrayal is different enough that I wouldn’t think of this as a prequel or a franchise reboot, I’d say the rest of the film leans on and supplements the ’71 film enough to qualify as a soft reboot. (Though the word “reboot” implies another attempt at a franchise, which would be quite the audacious statement to make, as discussed earlier.)

Moving on, let’s talk about the musical numbers. Of course, it’s rather surprising that the film wasn’t advertised as a musical, seeing as everyone really seems to love musical films nowadays. (At the very least, Taylor Swift and Beyonce have certainly proven that moviegoers don’t seem to have a problem with concert films.) Then again, I have to wonder if advertising the film as a musical might have invited unfavorable comparisons with the iconic songs of the ’71 film. It also doesn’t help that the songs were written by Neil Hannon — an Irish pop musician late of The Divine Comedy — who’s not exactly a household name on par with Alan Menken, Lin-Manuel Miranda, or even Pasek and Paul.

To wit: Grandmaster Danny Elfman composed original songs for the 2005 remake. If he couldn’t set himself above or even apart from the songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, Hannon never stood much of a chance.

That said, I found Hannon’s work to be perfectly serviceable. Certainly nothing on par with the iconic ’71 songs — and good on Hannon for waiting until the closing number to bring in “Pure Imagination” — but the song and dance numbers are staged well enough, they’re strategically placed to help give the film momentum, and the songs overall do a fine job of advancing the plot and themes. I doubt I’ll have any of them stuck in my head anytime soon, but they’re not bad at all.

So, are there any nitpicks? Well, the climax isn’t that great. Really, the first two acts are so delightfully creative that the predictable third act was kind of a letdown.

Even so, arguably the biggest stumbling block would be the anti-capitalist angle. Yes, I like how the film portrays the very real problem of oligopolies so powerful and coordinated and ingrained into the system that it’s become borderline impossible for a new entrepreneur or independent business to compete or thrive. Yes, I like how the filmmakers wove in the problem of predatory lenders and businesses who actively punish people for being poor, keeping the working class so busy and exhausted with menial labor that they have no time or money to better themselves or their station. And yes, I acknowledge that the filmmakers put so much attention on the teamwork aspect, arguing that our best chance of changing the world is in working together and pooling our strengths to reshape the world in spite of those who’ve grown rich and powerful from the status quo.

All of that being said, the fact remains that our protagonist is Willy Fucking Wonka. The man who could literally take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two. And the movie makes a huge deal from start to finish about how Wonka can make all these outrageously impossible chocolates and whip up inventions that break every known law of physics.

I get that the filmmakers want us to believe that even in late-stage capitalism, anyone can make their dream happen with enough ingenuity and hard work. But what I’m getting from the film is that this approach will never work unless you’re able to literally make the impossible happen, ergo this approach is impossible for anyone who isn’t actually Willy Wonka. I know we’re talking about an escapist fantasy here, but I don’t think this is the uplifting message the filmmakers were going for.

Overall, Wonka gets a lot more right than it doesn’t. The timely modern satire was a frankly ingenious approach for a Wonka origin story, and it more or less succeeds in conveying a sense of hope that things can still work out for the well-intentioned hard-working lower class. It certainly helps that everyone in the cast full-on commits to the assignment, and Paul King is not the least bit afraid of getting sappy or twee if it sells the tone and gets the point across while making the audience laugh. Of course, the musical numbers and the production design go a long way toward conveying that sense of whimsy.

When the year-end retrospectives come out, I’ll be fascinated to see how this one stacks up against Barbie, another fantastical and empowering movie from WB about maintaining hope and optimism while trying to make a difference in spite of a corrupt and apathetic world. Regardless, this movie somehow earns the right to exist and I can happily recommend it. I don’t know what the hell Paul King keeps doing, but let’s hope he keeps on doing it.

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