By Dolores Quintana
The first thing I should trumpet is the fact that WONKA is directed and co-written by Paul King, the director of Paddington and Paddington 2. Simon Farnaby, who also acted in the film and was co-writer on the Paddington films, penned the story on which WONKA is based. I had no idea, and once I found out, I wasn't surprised. Once people know that the director of Paddington directed WONKA, it will pique their interest because many people adore Paddington. This kind of earnest and heartfelt filmmaking is just the thing you need when you are having a bad day. It's great for the holidays too. I was in a bad mood when I went into the movie, but I felt so much happier afterward. I enjoyed it, and it was emotionally satisfying.
The film’s press kit describes it like so: "WONKA tells the wondrous story of how a young chocolate maker, armed with nothing but a hatful of dreams, manages to change the world, one delectable bite at a time.”
WONKA is wonderful. It is a sweet and emotional fantasy film that has great respect and understanding for the source material and the 1971 film. It has the rapid-fire comedic dialogue that recalls Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks for the adults and the swoon-worthy colorful sets, dance numbers, and cute animals for the kids (and adults.) The giraffe is adorable. But at its heart, it is an emotional examination of the greed of human beings and corporations, and the loneliness of motherless children. A quest of a child to make their mother proud. It's also what may be the second anti-capitalist musical. When I call it the second anti-capitalist musical, I mean film, not theatre. The first was Newsies, in case you were wondering.
What I mean is that the film outlines the insidious evil that is bred by capitalism. Corporate overlords stamp out the little guy who is only trying to fulfill their dreams. They have no room for innovation and love of craft, just crass and overweening greed for money and power. When you consider these ideas, think about the numerous recent union strikes and the fight for labor to be paid fairly.
When Wonka arrives in town, he generously gives money to a woman in the street but finds himself needing funds to find lodging on a cold night. He cheerfully plans to sleep on the street but is told by a “helpful” passerby that he will likely freeze to death in the snow. The film has a gently magical tone, but at the same time, the real dangers of the world lurk within the frame.
The film’s examination of capitalism doesn’t stop there, though. It also calls out the people within society who enable the robber barons' worst impulses. Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) runs what is likely a Victorian workhouse or a place of legal indentured servitude. Indentured servitude is a polite and legal name for slavery—the Victorian workhouses that were immortalized in Charles Dickens’ works like “Oliver Twist.” If you were poor and couldn’t afford to pay for a place to live and were able-bodied, you were required to work in such places on production lines to pay for the meager food and lodging that the people who owned the workhouse would provide. Pro-tip: the conditions were execrable and dangerous, and people frequently starved.
The idea that people don’t deserve to live unless they work is actually an issue that is relevant today because many feel that poor people don’t deserve support from the state and to receive benefits, they should be forced to work to receive them. In his Pie in the Sky mutterings about his proposed Mars colony, Elon Musk has suggested that poor people would be able to come, but they would be required to “work off their passage” once on Mars. The union-busting richest man in the world proposes to the judge of the new indentured servitude on Mars. So yes, there are people who want to put poor people back into workhouses right now. People who hate and despise the poor and see them as potential resources to be used until they have no more to give.
Among the three chocolate company owners doing all they can to keep Wonka from opening a chocolate store is the character of Fickelgruber, played by Matthew Baynton, who nearly vomits whenever he hears the word poor. It’s a running joke, but it shows the distaste that the rich, particularly the purportedly self-made billionaires, have for those who don’t have the advantages they did. The triumvirate of chocolatiers deals with potential competition like many famous captains of industry have. They kneecap the up-and-coming businessperson so that their innovation and lower-cost quality goods never see the light of day. They don’t stick at anything and use the town’s chief of police to enforce their rule with arrests and violence by bribing him with chocolate and arranging for killings and disappearances. Most of this has a comic tone, but once again, the reality of this lingers like ghostly tendrils.
All of this is pretty heady, but if you look into history, you will see that none of it is far off the mark. Many rich families and billionaires' fortunes are built on crime, murder, and villainy of some kind. Films like WONKA provide a balance with all the pro-corporation cinema out there.
Great casting and gentle, heartfelt performances bring home the love and grief in the characters. Timothée Chalamet was just right as Wonka, just eccentric enough, but he plays the character with his natural sweetness and a touch of Wonka weirdness. You can believe he is a younger version of Gene Wilder's character, more naïve and less hardened to the world, but still with an orphan's tender heart. He does the thing where he openly tells someone a lie and waits to see how they react to it. Will they challenge him? Do they have their own opinion? Thus does he judge their character.
I loved seeing Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Olivia Colman, Paterson Joseph, Rakhee Thakrar, Simon Farnaby, and Jim Carter, all those fantastic British actors. They work so well together as an ensemble. Even the villains are charismatic, even if it is obvious that they are not good people. That’s how they take advantage of people. They pretend to be respectable and trustworthy. King wisely has the actors dial those subtle characteristics in so that the point is not lost. Calah Lane did a great job as the young Noodle, especially in the film’s final scenes with Chalamet. I cried. I am a very soft touch when it comes to emotion in films. But only if the emotion is genuine. If I feel it genuinely, I will cry. I find WONKA rich with genuine emotion. The actors who play the other workers caught in Scrubbit’s workhouse and Sally Hawkins as Willy’s mother are such warm human souls.
One idea that has caused some concern is Keegan Michael-Key’s chief of police and his growing size. Some have suggested that it is a crass “fat joke” because Key wears what is known as a fat suit. That occurred to me while watching the film, but afterward, as I considered the idea, it seemed like it might have been an exaggeration for comic effect; no one gains over a hundred pounds over the course of a few days. I see it also as a tribute to the Violet Blueberry scene in the 1971 film. It’s meant to show that the cop’s weakness that leads to him breaking the law and his vows as an officer is greed for chocolate. That strikes me more as a surreal punishment, more along the lines of classic Wonka lore than anything else.
People will love the surprise of Hugh Grant as Lofty the Oompa Loompa. He's an MVP in the movie like in Dungeons and Dragons. His CGI-generated character is a bit of a walking gag that pokes fun at Grant’s very proper English carriage and dignity. His performance, one of wounded dignity and pride in search of vengeance, hits all the right spots. He lends the character of Oompa Loompa.
WONKA is a delicious and delightful confection from start to finish. Full of music, wonder, and questioning of the social order, it doesn’t preach so much that it forgets to entertain. Marvelous performances from the cast, contributions from the craftspeople, the musical book, the score, the set design, casting, and special effects make it glorious to behold. Even when the situation is grim, it still has a hopeful heart but manages to make its point just the same.
WONKA arrives only in theaters December 15th.