The Empty Magic of “Wonka”

Tom Luddy, who was the executive producer on Norman Mailer’s 1987 film “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” once said that he gave Mailer notes about “things in the script that make no sense,” but, for most of them, Mailer said that “we would just have to get by on ‘movie logic.’ ” Such disrespect both for viewers and for the art of movies is the kind that only a successful novelist slumming it in the gaudy halls of the film business could afford. This condescension underlies movies that pass off illogic and omissions as marks of fantasy and imagination—or, at least, as good enough for children. “Wonka,” a new origin story to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”—leaves me with that sort of dismay. The movie, directed by Paul King, who also wrote the story (and co-wrote the script with Simon Farnaby), depends entirely on a just-so imagination. Its convenient wonders just happen to advance its action in ridiculous ways, which serve solely to set up the specific conflicts, resolutions, and set pieces that yield the emotions and the songs that the movie is selling.

“Wonka” is also another entry in one of the year’s suddenly popular genres, the business drama. (The cohort includes “Air,” “BlackBerry,” “Dumb Money,” “Flamin’ Hot,” and, by far the best of them, “Ferrari.”) It’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” minus Charlie; it’s the story of how Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) got his factory. It’s also a musical, with pleasant but largely forgettable new songs by Neil Hannon, plus a couple of songs borrowed from the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl’s book—above all, the famous “Oompa Loompa” strut. One of Hannon’s songs involves comedically forced rhymes on which Willy relies in order to appear charming; that song seems to reveal, like a Freudian slip, the story’s contrivances. “Wonka” plays like a series of dramatically forced connections that depend not merely on absurd coincidences but, above all, on the elision of the principal subject of any business-based movie and the very core of the whimsical and wondrous confectionary creations with which Willy makes his name and fame: work.

The story, playful but dramatic, replicates the Dickensian poverty at the basis of Dahl’s novel. Here, the poor, earnest, and naïve young Willy arrives by boat in an unnamed capital city with a trunk full of chocolates and a heart full of dreams—to open a grand chocolate shop in which he’ll sell his exquisite and fanciful confections. (The town presents a decorative mix-and-match, filled with monumental and ornamental architecture and mid-twentieth-century technology, along with some steampunkian anachronism, such as the blinking lights of early-generation mainframes). With twelve sovereigns (the country’s currency) in his pocket (it’s not much), he makes his way into town and quickly gets cheated, scammed, and beseeched down to nothing. Guided deceitfully to a modest hotel, he offers to pay later, signing a form full of fine print; he’s on his way to sell his wares in the street and is confident of returning flush—one of his wondrous chocolates literally sends consumers airborne—but, as an unauthorized peddler, he has his candies and his profits quickly confiscated by the police. It turns out that the hotel is a trap: he has, in effect, signed a document that renders him, in case of debt, a virtual indentured servant; he’s quickly shunted to its grim, prison-like basement, where he’s confined, alongside four others, to do laundry, likely in perpetuity, under the cruel authority of Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis).

With the help of a similarly indentured young chambermaid, a foundling called Noodle (Calah Lane), Willy tries to escape—but he’s up against authorities stronger than Mrs. Scrubitt. The city’s chocolate business is under the thumb of the Chocolate Cartel—the villainous nemeses of Dahl’s novel, Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), and Prodnose (Matt Lucas)—who bribe the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to dissuade, disable, even kill Willy for daring to compete. But Willy, along with Noodle and the other inmates—an accountant called Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), a plumber named Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), a former telephone operator named Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), and a comedian, Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher)—plot their escape to sell his chocolates, pay their debts, and live free again. But they’re confronted by the Cartel’s ever more dastardly schemes, as well as by another, altogether more peculiar presence—an Oompa Loompa, nicknamed Lofty (Hugh Grant), an orange humanoid small enough to be trapped in a bottle, who also makes demands of Willy but has reasons of his own for lending a hand.

Though Dahl’s novel places its emphasis on Charlie, what makes Willy Wonka such a vivid character is his dual track of ingenuity. Willy isn’t an artisan laboring meticulously in the back room of a small shop; he runs a factory that’s both a mighty enterprise and a technological wonder. He’s more than just a master chocolatier; he’s a singularly inspired inventor whose business runs on advanced machinery of phantasmagorical and surrealistic power—that he created. One of the aspects of “Wonka” that I was looking forward to was the origin story of his two distinct abilities—how he came to them and how he brought them together. No such luck. Without giving away the store, suffice it to say that Chalamet’s young-adult Willy is carrying on the legacy of his late mother (Sally Hawkins), a poor woman who, with difficulty and devotion, gratified the child Willy’s chocolate cravings as best she could. (The tale echoes Charlie Bucket’s own deprivations and his cherished annual Wonka bar.) So “Wonka” makes it clear enough how Willy comes to his kitchen-craft, but offers not a word or an image about his natural engineering skills.

And natural they must be, because Willy turns out to be illiterate (a fact that’s of trivial importance in the plot and becomes merely a matter of sidelong jokes). He arrives in the unnamed city after seven years at sea and calls himself “something of a magician, inventor, and chocolate-maker.” He learned his engineering neither from books nor from any experience that the filmmakers care to disclose (or, perhaps, ever imagined); he did magic as a child to entertain his mother. Yet this talent for machinery is more than merely the basis of Willy’s candy-making; it’s the pivot of the plot, when Willy, trapped in the basement with the other captives, creates a machine to do their work and thus makes his own escape possible. Where did his know-how for the techniques of this gizmo come from, where did he get the materials for such a massive device, how long did it take him to build it, how did it pass unnoticed beneath the snooping eyes of the overseers? The rubric of magic covers all too much of the movie, rendering anything possible and nothing meaningful.

The hand-waving goes ever further into the plot and ever deeper into the character’s backstory. When Willy opens a store under surprising circumstances, it’s with a similar finger-snap: from a barren and dilapidated space that’s disdained by proper shopkeepers, Willy and friends turn it seemingly effortlessly into a palatial, spectacularly decorated, ornamentally dazzling palace of fun—but how, when, with what? For that matter, Willy—even when tossed into the virtual dungeon of the laundry—is nonetheless equipped with his own suitcase-size “travel factory” that’s filled with such wonders as “condensed thunderclouds” and “liquid sunlight.” (There’s no place in the movie for culinary work-arounds, not even in detention.) Do King and Farnaby figure that such practicalities and incidentals would bore children? Anyone who’s spent time with kids would likely have noticed their curiosity; work fascinates them, and, when they see it being done, they want to pitch in, to try to hammer a nail or turn a screw, stir a pot or crush a clove. Children tend to be little Frederick Wisemans, process-obsessed and detail-fixated.

It takes only a little imagination to build recognizable action into a tale of fantasy. Instead, “Wonka” delivers ready-mades. Even the charming presence of Lofty, the Oompa Loompa, depends on an element of backstory that reeks of absurdity. Willy is coming to the capital city with nearly empty pockets to get his foothold and make his fortune—but he has already travelled the world far and wide, making his way to Loompaland and inadvertently causing trouble that Lofty turns up to resolve. (The little subplot, involving the notion of ethical sourcing, could have used more emphasis and development.) Of course, in Dahl’s book, Willy Wonka is a world traveller, too—but that Willy, who’s well into adulthood, is also a veteran industrialist in his second act, having closed, remade, and reopened his huge factory because of his competitors’ espionage. How the penniless Willy travelled the world, collecting ingredients from remote forests and imperial gardens, remains as unaddressed as how he built his elaborate paraphernalia.

Moreover, in the wake of such travels, it’s hard to believe that Willy would arrive in the capital as such a rube, as a naïf who gets quickly fleeced. But, if Willy Wonka is implausible in that guise, it’s all too fitting for Chalamet, a fabulously talented actor whose roles have locked him into a seemingly perpetual innocence. Whether it’s his preference, his directors’ preference, or his default habit, there’s manifestly much more to his art that remains hardly tapped (there are hints of it in his supporting role in “Don’t Look Up”) and that would have found a congenial place in the characterization of Willy Wonka’s early years. I’m reminded of Dick Powell, the ingratiatingly perky tenor, born in 1904, who played romantic leads in many of the prime Busby Berkeley musicals of the nineteen-thirties. When he grew weary of the genre, he left those roles’ wheedling humor behind and turned himself into one of the great film-noir actors, thus avoiding the fate of the “permanent juvenile” who was another character in those musicals. Chalamet is miles ahead of Powell, surging to stardom and critical acclaim in his early twenties. His persona may be sweet and innocent, but nobody achieves such success on sweetness alone; the tough-mindedness that undergirds his own rise (but has rarely appeared onscreen) would be a welcome spice in his performance as the young Willy Wonka. Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ incuriosity about Willy is matched by their incuriosity about the star’s range and depth. ♦

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