The Plot Of ‘Wonka‘ Is … Probably Not What You Think It Is

In the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder plays Willy Wonka as both whimsical and meticulous, but also with a side of sadistic evil. If one were to start listing the literal crimes Wonka commits during that movie, it sure doesn’t sound like a beloved children’s film that has stood the test of time and still generates memes and gifs as never-ending as gobstopper. Okay, so, sure, that version of Wonka should probably be in jail (who knows, maybe his upcoming prison sentence is why he needed to unload the factory in the first place) but he was also a character who just seemed to be all-knowing at all times and was indeed fascinating.

So now here we are with Paul King’s Wonka, a look at what made this guy tick in the first place, now played by Timothée Chalamet. So … there are a lot of, let’s say, interesting plot decisions in this musical, Wonka. (Oh, make no mistake, this is very much a musical even though for some reasons the marketing is avoiding that.) Plot decisions that I can’t stop thinking about. Like, “why?” The filmmakers seem to very much want to tie this movie to the 1971 film (I don’t think we talk about the Johnny Depp movie anymore) and Gene Wilder left a beautiful gift of a performance. His undercurrent of kind of being a sociopath actually did leave a lot of ground to explore. But why was he so ruthless? How did he become this way? How did he build this factory in the first place?

So, let me guess. You probably think Wonka is about how Willy Wonka built his famed chocolate factory. If that’s what you think, you are wrong. The plot of the movie is about how Willy Wonka is illiterate. I do confess, I’m endlessly fascinated that this is what was come up with. It’s like they were specifically told, “We know you want to make this about building the factory, but it can’t be about building the factory.”

We see young Wonka come to the big city – Chalamet plays Wonka with a lot of charm – though he also has to play a character who literally can’t spell the word “cat*” – and finds himself in need of a place to stay. Willy has no money, but he’s presented with a contract too good to be true that lets him stay now and he can pay later. Of course, since Willy is illiterate he can’t read the contract that says he now owes 10,000 units of currency for the room and if he can’t pay it off he has to work for the inn for one unit of currency a day for 10,000 days – which comes to roughly 27 years. Willy now has to sell chocolate on the street to try and earn enough money to pay off his hotel bill. So anyway, that’s the plot of Wonka.

(*Oh, I am well aware eagle-eyed readers will now be looking for every work I misspell.)

Willy does have some company in his forced labor situation, as there were some other people who also fell for the trick of signing the contract, even though it does appear the rest of them can read. Most notably, Willy befriends Noodle (Calah Lane), who is a young orphaned girl who teaches Willy how to make his way at the inn without getting in trouble. (Apparently, the contract is so airtight that even if Willy escaped the police would just bring him back to the inn.) Wonka spends a lot of time exploring Noodle’s backstory and the grand mystery of who her parents might be.

Willy loves chocolate. To the point, I don’t remember any other iteration of this character loving chocolate as much as Willy loves chocolate. It’s explained that Willy can’t read because he devoted all of his studies to chocolate. And he seemingly can make chocolate from anything, including thunderstorms, bugs, and clown tears. Which seems to suggest Willy is supernatural, even though he’s illiterate and can’t figure his way out of a contract with a local inn. There are times when Willy is making some new chocolate treat, using his portable chocolate maker, and Chalamet starts channeling Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas – to be fair, Lloyd Christmas can’t read the word “the,” so maybe there was some inspiration here – then Willy becomes less frantic and more whimsical as he sings a song.

There’s also a chocolate cartel run by three chocolate barons who don’t like it that Willy is selling chocolate on their turf, so they bribe (with chocolate, of course) the local chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key) to intimidate Willy into giving up chocolate. A running joke of the movie is that the chief takes so many bribes over the course of the movie that he becomes obese – which frankly isn’t really funny but the filmmakers seem to think it is. Hugh Grant plays an Oompa-Loompa and, as you might expect, gets most of the funny lines in the movie. (Though, I couldn’t help thinking, if I’m an actor who fits the physical description for this particular character and wanted that role, yeah I’d probably be pretty annoyed it went to Hugh Grant.)

Look, I’ll admit, the sequel to Wonka looks pretty good! The plot of this movie leaves off exactly where you probably assumed this movie would start, but for some reason didn’t. And like I said earlier, Timothée Chalamet plays Willy Wonka with a lot of charm and I bet it’s not easy to play someone who is all-knowing, possibly supernatural, but is also not very smart at times.

A friend of mine was texting me about this movie and had assumed, like most people, it was about Willy building the factory. I responded with the actual plot description and he did not believe me. And to be fair, in short texts, it does sounds fake, “The plot is Willy can’t read.” So I leave this movie, and this piece about this movie, truly baffled. But also still quite fascinated.

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