February 15, 2024


“Wonka”: A Free-Market Fable

By: Justin Tucker

Young magician, inventor, and chocolate-maker Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives by boat with only a handful of coins in his pocket to an unidentified city of seemingly European character set in what seems to be roughly a century ago. He seeks opportunity, dreaming of opening his own candy shop at the Galeries Gourmet alongside Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) and other chocolate makers. Slugworth and the others sample his sweets and are threatened by the prospect of another competitor making quality chocolate that even the poor can afford. They then use their influence and direct government forces to prevent Wonka from entering the market.

To make matters worse, Wonka becomes an indentured servant to Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman), a slumlord and laundry proprietor, because he has to work off the exorbitant fees she forced on him, citing clauses in the contract for a room that he couldn’t read. Along with his fellow servants, Wonka stealthily begins a black-market chocolate operation to pay off debts and raise funds to open his shop while eluding Mrs. Scrubitt and the cartel’s goons.

That is the basic premise of Wonka, an entertaining loose prequel to the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which is in turn based on the classic children’s books. Director Paul King, whose previous efforts include Paddington and Paddington 2, successfully creates a whimsical, Dalhsian world necessary for this character to inhabit. It tells an origin story that invokes countless rags-to-riches immigrant entrepreneurial success stories that people tell about America being a land of opportunity. He arrives in a new land, illiterate with a handful of sovereigns, and creates a brand that people trust.

The film also hilariously demonstrates how government overreach imposes costs on job creators. Upon arriving in his new home, Wonka is fined for daydreaming and confronted by police for “disrupting the trade of other businesses.” This leaves him with less capital to get his chocolate business off the ground. Ironically, Wonka immigrated to his new home with relative ease, but whatever benefit gained there is eroded by the excessive government intrusion.

Wonka is also a fable against the dangers of cronyism and corruption. Because Slugworth and his criminal gang want to protect their territory, they are not above bribing the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) or Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson, the funniest man alive), a cleric who has made a house of God into a den of thieves. This palm-greasing afflicts the very institutions whose purpose is to serve, protect, and minister.

King’s interpretation of Roald Dahl’s beloved confectionary entrepreneur does not seek to supplant the cherished 1971 original and does plenty to make it stand apart and on its own. If intended as a nostalgic cash grab, Wonka is one of the better recent examples of such.  It is not as dark as previous incarnations, which some parents may find reassuring. Chalamet’s youth interpretation of Wonka is optimistic, wide-eyed, and high-spirited which is almost the opposite of Gene Wilder’s twisted sardonicism. The film’s music takes cues from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s 1971 soundtrack while featuring new, serviceable songs by Neil Hannon. The physical look of Lofty, the film’s most prominent Oompa Loompa, is similar to the original except played by a CGI-captured Hugh Grant and not by a short-statured actor who could have benefitted from such a role.

While Wonka has hauled over half a billion dollars in so far at the global box office, do not hold your breath on Warner Bros. revisiting their Wonkaverse any time soon. Netflix acquired the Roald Dalh Story Company back in 2021 and will inevitably reimagine the Willy Wonka character yet again. It is yet to be seen how Netflix will handle classic characters like Wonka, Mr. Fox, or the BFG, and how audiences will react to them. In the meantime, King’s Wonka will satisfy your cinematic sweet tooth while extolling the virtues of fair competition in the marketplace and exposing the follies of cronyism.