I recently took the kids to the new Wonka movie. This film is a prequel to the classic Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which was in turn based on the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I liked the new Wonka film, with caveats that I’ll present below.
The story is relatively conventional. There are bad guys who run a sweets cartel and want to corner the chocolate market (a kind of chocolate OPEC). There are good guys, led by young Willie Wonka (played with pluck by Timotheé Chalamet) who thwart them. There isn’t much dramatic tension. That tension which does exist is largely obvious and heavy handed. The bad guys are really bad. The good guys are uncomplicatedly good. So as storytelling goes, the film is paint-by-numbers. But the film is visually playful. The songs are also sometimes quite conventional and uninspired, but a handful of the songs and production numbers are truly compelling. I wouldn’t make grand claims about Wonka. It certainly is nowhere near as good as the original film (again, for reasons I will get to). But it is relatively harmless family fun.
Relatively harmless. Upon reflection, I began to question my initial enthusiasm for the film. I think the film has two essential problems that are worth thinking about beyond the matter of simply doing a film review. Before I get into this, let me deal with terminology. As indicated, there are multiple Wonka texts. You have the Dahl book, the first film, which changed the name of the book slightly, then a remake of that film with Johnny Depp as Wonka that kept the name of the book (Charlie, not Willie Wonka, and the Chocolate Factory), and then the new Wonka, which is based on Dahl’s world but is an entirely fresh creation. I only wish to discuss the first film, with Gene Wilder as Willie Wonka, and the new film. For sake of simplicity, when I reference Willie Wonka, I mean the original film, and when I say Wonka, I mean the newest film.
So what are the problems with Wonka? First, the film turns the Church (Catholic, it seems), into bad guys. The main clergyman, played by loveable doofus Rowan Atkinson, and a group of monks are bribed by the bad guys into allowing the grand church (perhaps a cathedral) to serve as a front for the chocolate stealing enterprise. To be sure, the clergy are more goofballs than malicious. They really love chocolate. Unable to control this vice (sin), they allow themselves to be manipulated into allowing the bad guy operation to exist via secret passage under the church. It’s disappointing that the film makes men of God into silly hypocrites. For one, it is far too easy of a plot line, so much so that the hypocritical clergyman is by now basically a cliché. Also, this is a film for kids. It is hardly a problem of our time that kids have too much respect for authority, especially church authority. Sure, the Church universal (Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) has done much to degrade the authority of clergy. But that is precisely the point. We need good, positive, uplifting images of clergy. They need not be idealized, like Bing Crosby in Going My Way, but Wonka takes the easy route of religious cynicism. That’s disappointing.
There is a second problem with Wonka that makes it inferior to Willie Wonka. Precisely the problem with the story is that the villains are uncomplicated, as are the heroes. Now, I am one for drawing distinctions between good and evil. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we see no motivation on the part of either side. Why are the bad guys bad? Why are the good guys good? Wonka provides no answer beyond “because the plot demands it.”
This makes Wonka a morally simplistic story. Compare this to Willie Wonka. The character of Willie Wonka as played by Gene Wilder is a wonderfully obscure character. Wilder himself famously suggested the action that introduces us to Willie Wonka. The great man, much discussed but hitherto unseen, emerges from his factory. The crowd gasps as they notice Wonka walks with a considerable limp, only held upright with the aid of a cane. The cane gets stuck in a cobble stone. Wonka loses his grip…falls forward…surely the disabled man will be hurt…and he does a forward somersault and leaps to his feet! It was all an act! Wilder suggested this scene so Wonka would always remain a little ambiguous, just a little untrustworthy. He seems to be good, but is he wholly good? If you’ve seen the film, you know that this is part of Wonka’s test. Who can he trust? And who can’t he?
The children of Willie Wonka are themselves more complex than Wonka’s cookie cutter villains. If we take the children, sans Charlie, as the bad guys, what makes them bad? They all have vices. Gluttony (Augustus Gloop). Greed (Veruca Salt). There is Mike TeeVee who, naturally, spends all day watching TV and yearns for television fame. Violet Bearegarde suffers from vainglory and basic bad manners. She chews gum constantly (oblivious to this as a vice) and brags about how long she’s been chewing the same piece, noting she’s beaten the record of a schoolmate. In each case, the child’s vice is their comeuppance, for example Augustus falling into the chocolate river upon which he gorges himself, despite Willie Wonka’s explicit command that he stop. Even Charlie, seemingly of pure virtue, breaks the rules and consumes Fizzy Lifting Drink against Willie Wonka’s request not to do so.
In Wonka, the source of evil is completely exterior to our band of good guys. Evil is something exogenous to ourselves, something to which we are subjected. In Willie Wonka, evil, or more accurately vice and sin, is endogenous, i.e., it comes from within. It is easy to abstract from the villainy of the new Wonka precisely because it is so unambiguous and provides no real attraction to us. But an honest person recognizes part of himself in each of the bad little boys and girls in Willie Wonka. As much as we want to believe we are Charlie, we know that there is a little bit of Augustus, Veruca, Mike, and Violent in all of us. To resort to the well-known observation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil really does run through every human heart. Willie Wonka doesn’t allow us to so easily dismiss the vices portrayed as temptations that only plague other people, but certainly not ourselves. The Oompa Loompa’s sing songs precisely that make it explicit: we are all sinners.
In Willie Wonka, when Charlie is on quest for a Golden Ticket that will get him into Willie Wonka’s factory, Grandpa Joe says he’ll find one because he wants it more. Indeed, the film shows why Charlie deserves to win. It isn’t just because he’s poor and others are rich, which is Wonka’s lazy analysis. Charlie deserves it because he loves. He sacrifices. He works a paper route to earn money so his family can eat. He even offers to pay for Grandpa Joe’s tobacco. Charlie is the poor in spirit and pure of heart who will inherit the kingdom, or at least a chocolate factory. Every kid and parent in Willie Wonka is tempted by the evil Slugworth’s offer to give big money for the secret to Willie Wonka’s Everylasting Gobstopper. Everyone that is except Charlie. His final act that wins him the grand prize is an act of sacrifice. He gives back his Gobstopper to Willie Wonka instead of selling it to Slugworth. So shines a good deed in a weary, weary world.
Willie Wonka is a superior story because it too knows the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice. But it does not flatter its audience that “bad” is in other people and we are “good” merely because we think so. Indeed, it is our thinking ourselves good, immune to evil’s temptations, that might be our greatest fault.
So, watch Wonka. Enjoy the songs. Laugh at the jokes (especially Hugh Grant as a cantankerous Oompa Loompa). Smile at the happy resolution (never really in doubt). But if you want to be edified, if you want a story that might actually help you and your kids be better people, stick with the original and give a watch (or a rewatch) to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.