starring Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Matt Lucas, Hugh Grant
screenplay by Simon Farnaby & Paul King
directed by Paul King
by Walter Chaw Paul King's Wonka is the sort of film upon which it's so difficult to find purchase that it attracts critical facility: the Gene Shalit school of equivocal wordplay favoured by capsule writers and elderly sports columnists that substitutes cleverness for insight. A bad thing when there is critical insight to be mined, but some artifacts are possibly only interesting for the fact of them. About ten minutes into Wonka, I started thinking in terms of confectionary puns: how airy and light this movie is, how sugary sweet on the tongue yet troublesome for the gut. How it's an indulgence, a gobstopper somewhat less than "everlasting." A bean somewhere short of every-flavoured. I used to joke that there are movies that should come with an insulin plunger. And before I knew it, Wonka opened a chocolate factory, made a deal with a workforce addicted to his product (like a drug dealer, yes?), sang half a dozen songs, I bet, and then the film was over, and I remembered almost nothing about it. And so it is, and so it has remained.
Here's what I do recall: Timothée Chalamet is young Willy Wonka, aspiring chocolatier, who, as the picture opens, arrives in a dreary industrial London dominated by three competing candy-makers who remind very much of the villains from another Roald Dahl work, Fantastic Mr Fox. Wonka sings about his hopes and aspirations as his pocketful of farthings is steadily whittled away by a combination of devious beggars and Wonka's native generosity. The songs are the kinds of songs I can't remember once they're done but don't mind overly in the moment. They're like a routine visit to the dentist, I guess, after you've spent six months flossing. Willy, desperate for a job, meets fellow orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), who covers for him whenever Willy wants to slip out to try selling a few of his magical candies to the unassuming public. He has ones that make you fly for a while; meanwhile, he's stuck in indentured servitude to Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), who charges him more for his room and board than he could ever earn in the maintenance of it. Is Wonka about wealth disparity and the atrocity of capitalism? It is, to the extent that it also sees capitalism as a means through which to escape itself. As lessons about the world go, "Be better at business" is pretty low on the "this is what I want to hear right now" pole.
Wonka avoids this a little bit by founding Willy's entrepreneurial zeal on the desire to free his fellow wage slaves from their wage slavery, but...look, I don't want to make a big deal out of Wonka's Dickensian politics. The film isn't interested in the process and details of work so much as it's a vehicle to make winking references to the Gene Wilder film for which this is the prequel, and to move itself towards a performance of "Pure Imagination," which Wilder once infected with so much unctuous creepiness I can only listen to it ironically. Maybe that's the main takeaway from Wonka: Decades of running a business that exploits a servant class the same way Scrubbit exploits Wonka himself have made him dangerously, chicken-beheadingly mad. I forgot to mention Hugh Grant as a very angry Oompa-Loompa: a sneak thief Wonka captures one night preparatory to the two of them forging an alliance that will eventually bear fruit. I read and reread Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the" books with great zeal as a kid. I laughed heartily at Dahl's perverse cruelty and hatred of difference--at the sledgehammer racism of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, in which he portrays China's head of state as a Mr. Yunioshi-ian patchwork of appalling racial stereotypes and envisions a world-eating menace as giant space sperm looking to penetrate the egg-like Earth. There's nothing that edged in Wonka, although there's controversy in the lack of friction. Well, there would be if I could remember what fucking happens in this cloyingly saccharine glazed bonbon.