I recently saw the trailer for the new Willy Wonka movie. I’m confused.
The movie is an apparent prequel that tells the story of a young titular Willy Wonka and how he comes into town to start his own candy store in defiance of the old, established candy cartel through disarming charm and fantastic invention. It sells itself as twee, whimsical, and “inspirational”. It’s gross and reeks of the ‘Member Berries from South Park. Remember the river of chocolate? Remember the soda pop that makes you float? Remember the Oompa Loompas? Yes, movie, I remember. What about them?
Aesthetically, they go in a Tim Burton direction by being goth but sweet. Extolling how secretly cool it is to be an (extremely white) outsider challenging the system…because the Tim Burton take on Willy Wonka worked so well the first time. Maybe they’re holding their breath for Timothee Chalamet, but he’s only ever as good as the script you give him. Besides, star power doesn’t carry the same clout it used to.
What’s the selling point here? It’s Hollywood once again creating content that feeds itself on an endless supply of shallow references that is famously unimaginative in story and aesthetic. It’s not even pretending to contribute anything to the lore, theme, or significance of Willy Wonka as a cultural force in any way. I would say this movie is banking on empty nostalgia, but it’s not even doing that right. This is nostalgia-bait more than nostalgia-exploitation.
Here's what I think happened: somehow, Hollywood fell for its own marketing gimmick for the original movie. The unspoken truth about the original Willy Wonka movie is that it was so successful because it’s a slasher-horror movie for people who don’t have the stomach for actual horror. People think they like the movie for its whimsy and imagination, but those elements were always just sugar-coating for the snobs. People who don’t want to admit that, deep down, they’re made of, and driven by, cruder stuff.
The movie revolved around a group of ridiculous and unlikeable young people trapped in an unfamiliar location with a mad man who systematically destroys each one in more or less fitting tortures. At its most visceral level, it’s the cathartic outlet of watching terrible things happen to terrible people. The punishments are cartoonish to disguise the fact they are as grotesque as they are dehumanizing. On one level, you are smugly satisfied because they deserve it. On another level, there’s the shudder, the thrill, of wondering: wouldn’t that be terrible if something like that happened to you? Welcome to horror. You’re realizing the same cathartic outlet.
The fact it takes place in a “whimsical” chocolate factory is all the better. Our collective imagination impulsively understands that places of vacuous but endless delight is exactly where witches, monsters, and the devil belong. There’s a reason the carnival is such a staple of the slasher-horror genre. Hell, this goes back to Hansel and Pinocchio. The product of thousands of years of Christian propaganda warning against the hellish temptations of earthly delights, maybe, but damned fine entertainment all the same.
What of Charlie, the protagonist? The only “survivor” is the purest of them who follows puritanical morals the best (even if not always perfectly). The famous “surviving virgin” archetype, if you will, who always escapes the wrath of Michael, Freddie, and Jason. These characters will always be portrayed as the most relatable and down-to-earth to the audience. A false promise that there’s cosmic justice where rule of law fails. A reassurance that this won’t happen to you. Even true horror aficionados like their sweeteners.
Failure to understand this is why so many people get so confused by parts of the movie that just seem out of place but are just par for the course. What was going on with the disturbing dark tunnel with the strobe lights and the man eating a centipede? The audience might ask. The answer is, horror needs a sense of uneasiness and dread, and this sets the atmosphere to be subliminally carried for the rest of the movie. The director understood very well what movie he was making.
Why is Grandpa Joe let off the hook for being a life-long moocher who misleads his grandson into stealing - nearly killing him in the process? A lot of horror, including this movie, depend on the illusion of justice for the audience’s sake. Many stories (including many from the Bible) cleverly sneak in evidence to the contrary for the attentive. At the very least, you could say that Wonka’s, or even the movie’s, morals are more arbitrary than they first appear.
Doesn’t this make Wonka a psychopath with a god-complex? Yes, and like all the other psychopathic monsters in slasher-horror, he is a quasi-arbiter of divine and harsh justice for the undeserving as discussed before. What’s interesting is that Wonka, unlike Jason, for instance, is aware of his role in the story.
Doesn’t this make the ending where he is made out as a benevolent person to Charlie a little nihilistic? On a Freudian/Jungian level, monsters, in these movies, are based on the “Tyrannical Father” archetype turned murderous. In this case, this figure is someone who must be appeased rather than destroyed, as per convention, which makes the story ring a little Old Testament. Tellingly, Charlie doesn’t have a father. Wonka supplants that role as both the monstrous Tyrant and generous Benefactor depending on whether Charlie is a good boy to his liking.
That’s fucked up. Yep.
After the trailer, my wife said, “it does look cute.” But I know the audience. Cute won’t sell like the old stuff. Not with Willy Wonka.