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    ‘Wonka’ has no reason to exist

    Timothée Chalamet in “Wonka.”

    Jaap Buittendijk

    You know that “Wonka” has no right to exist. You saw the trailer and openly groaned. You said to the person next to you, “Seriously? ‘Wonka’?” You didn’t ask for this movie. No one asked for it. But here “Wonka” is now, and we all must reckon with it.

    If you’re blissfully unaware, allow me to puncture your innocence. In its never-ending quest to milk the IP teat until it’s red and raw, Warner Bros. decided to make an origin story movie about Willy Wonka, the fanciful chocolatier from Roald Dahl’s beloved “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” They grabbed “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman to give the film a cheery theme park atmosphere. They hired “Paddington” director Paul King in an effort to give the film some emotional heft. And they cast Timothée Chalamet in a title role once played brilliantly by Gene Wilder (and another time by Johnny Depp, in one of Depp’s “Let’s give my character a bowl cut” fits of nonsense). 

    They also made this origin story a musical, which I didn’t realize until I was already in my seat and couldn’t escape. 

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    The good news is that, taken on its own, “Wonka” is a perfectly acceptable family comedy. Young Willy is a gifted confectioner who travels to England from parts unknown to open up a candy shop, gets targeted by the sugar daddy mafia already running the town and bands together with some of his new friends, plus a CGI giraffe, to take them down. All very easy to swallow. I took my 17-year-old to “Wonka” because she was stressing out over college admissions, and her snap review walking back to the car was, “Well, I wasn’t bored.” In a surprise, neither was I. 

    I also wasn’t angered by this film, which is really the more important thing. The songs here are lousy, but I consider that an enormous benefit because they didn’t get stuck in my head. Chalamet is woefully miscast, but damned if he doesn’t try his best. Keegan-Michael Key shows up to do a series of fat suit gags that are actually pretty funny because he’s playing a dirty cop. King also cast British party favor Rowan Atkinson — aka Mr. Bean — as a naughty priest. And I earnestly like Atkinson every time I see him. What if they had made a film where Mr. Bean WAS Willy Wonka? I kinda wish they had, but instead they made this perfectly tolerable, wholly unnecessary movie instead … a movie whose flavor disappears seconds after you’ve finished consuming it.

    Timothée Chalamet in “Wonka.”

    Timothée Chalamet in “Wonka.”

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Because while “Wonka” is pleasantly diverting, it’s also toothless. If you saw the original 1971 adaptation of that book, you remember Wilder’s Wonka as a trickster god: a temperamental man who uses his confectionery to punish all of the spoiled children who won a ticket to visit his factory. Wilder’s Wonka doesn’t even seem to like children, until he meets the destitute Charlie Bucket and decides, OK, I guess this Bucket kid is all right. There’s no explanation as to why Wonka is so aloof. There’s no backstory as to how or why he became a chocolate baron, or why he turned his factory into a death trap, or what the f—k the Oompa-Loompas running his factory are all about. All of that is left a mystery, and that’s what makes the story interesting.

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    As you may have guessed, “Wonka” does away with all of that mystery. King gives the title character no air of menace whatsoever, and instead makes him into a guy who wants to make chocolate because he hopes it’ll bring back his dead mom. This vestigial Wonka is as stubbornly cheerful as Leslie Knope, and he lacks the underlying sadism that made Wilder’s Wonka such an icon (and, regrettably, an endlessly used meme). This guy might as well be the sidekick in a boilerplate, CGI-animated kiddie movie. He’s just a nice guy who likes kids and wants to make people happy. That, in a predictable bit of irony, ruins the magic of a character who can make bonbons that give you the power of flight. 

    Scenes from “Wonka.”Jaap Buittendijk, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
    Scenes from “Wonka.”Jaap Buittendijk, Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Again, you probably knew all of this was coming, because you’re used to tiresome origin stories by now. Thanks to Hollywood dredging the seafloor for ideas, you’ve learned the humble beginnings of Anakin Skywalker, Maleficent, Spider-Man, Superman, Cruella de Vil, the Wizard of Oz, Spider-Man again, the Wicked Witch of the West, Tony Soprano, Iron Man, Batman, Batman’s butler, the Joker, Buzz Lightyear, one more Spider-Man and the f—king Grinch. At best, these movies have been entertaining fan service. At worst, they’ve put a stain on their source material that your memory can’t wash off.

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    Calah Lane as Noodle and Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka in “Wonka.”

    Calah Lane as Noodle and Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka in “Wonka.”

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    The best origin stories, like “The Godfather,” aren’t origin stories at all. They’re introductions, not loose prequel material. And the best characters in TV and film history — Logan Roy, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Travis Bickle — are compelling specifically because of what we don’t know about them. It’s the lack of an origin story that draws you in, that makes you want to know why these people are the way they are, and why they do the things they do. To actually TELL the audience why, more often than not, ruins the biography that you constructed for them in your imagination.

    Because the best stories aren’t one-sided information dumps, they’re the ones that leave you curious. They don’t answer every question, because then your imagination would have nothing to play with. If I know why Hannibal Lecter kills and eats people — and don’t worry, there’s also a movie that explains that — then I’m not as frightened by him. It’s when you refuse to tell me why that I become even more determined to figure it out on my own. Few origin stories, save for perhaps “Casino Royale,” understand this dynamic.

    Timothée Chalamet at the Paris premiere of “Wonka.”

    Timothée Chalamet at the Paris premiere of “Wonka.”

    Olivier Borde

    “Wonka” certainly doesn’t. It’s a movie that says to its audience, “You all love the chocolate guy, right? Well, what if we told you he’s always been a real sweetheart?” I don’t want Willy Wonka to be a sweetheart. I don’t wanna know where he came from, or why he made a bubble gum that makes you blow up like a balloon. I just want him to be a rich, eccentric weirdo. After all, there is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.

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