“Judgment has come . . . in its most unexpected form!”
Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson) screeches this line as a giraffe chases him through the sanctuary of his church amid Wonka’s wacky third act. While it might be easy to dismiss such a line as simply a joke in a children’s movie full of laughs, this bit of dialogue may actually serve as the thesis statement for the latest whimsical adventure from director Paul King (Paddington, Paddington 2). In Wonka, judgment comes for the corrupt in ways that are surprising, while the film also makes room for an equally surprising grace.
The plot follows a young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) as he arrives in an unnamed European town to establish his first chocolate factory. There, he faces opposition from three rival chocolatiers who are engaged in an unholy alliance with the police chief (Keegan Michael-Key) and the local church. Meanwhile, Wonka is forced to work in a launderette under the thumb of Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), where he meets a band of misfits cast out by society, including the young Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan.
King combines this narrative setup with a fantastical musical atmosphere to comment on class inequality. Wonka and his friends represent the oppressed, while the businessmen, cops, and clergy represent the well-off oppressors, those who hold their positions of power by perverting the system. One of the other indentured servants in the laundromat, Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), reveals the coordinating layers of corruption at hand when he tells Wonka, “You can’t get a shop without selling chocolate, and you can’t sell chocolate without a shop.” Given this is a family movie with an unquestioned happy ending, the audience knows that Wonka’s foes will face their downfall by the time the credits roll. But King brings about their comeuppance in a way that surprisingly recalls a Christian understanding of God’s role as judge.
Wonka and his friends devise a plan to retrieve the chocolate cartel’s accounting book, which will expose their illegal schemes. The plan—which involves obtaining the giraffe from the zoo; enlisting the help of an Oompa-Loompa thief (hilariously played by Hugh Grant); some “hoverchocs” (chocolates invented by Wonka that make people fly); and the arrest of the police chief (who grows increasingly larger with each piece of chocolate the businessmen bribe him with)—plays out as a cartoonish homage to the plagues of Egypt, each act bringing its own form of justice. These retributions could not have been known by anyone in the town, just as the Egyptians could not have predicted the tragic, supernatural events that would befall them. The fun, lightheartedness of Wonka’s climax reminds us of a serious concept: God can bring terrible, unexpected, “mighty acts of judgment” upon those who oppress his people.
God can bring terrible, unexpected, “mighty acts of judgment” upon those who oppress his people.
While judgment towards the corrupt is a major theme of Wonka, the movie delicately counterbalances this idea with a figure of grace: Willy Wonka himself. Unlike previous versions of the character, Chalamet’s Wonka forgoes eccentric (sometimes harsh) lesson-giving for compassion and understanding. While Gene Wilder’s Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory—the first big-screen adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel—acted as a judge who dolled out punishments without mercy, Chalamet channels kindness. Inspired by the model of his late mother (Sally Hawkins), Wonka refuses to look down on those who have been relegated to the lower class. He provides friendship, love, and a means of escape from their shackles, just as followers of Christ were called to do when Jesus told his disciples to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .”
Wonka not only cares for his down-and-out companions, he also sacrifices for them when he agrees to leave town in order to free his friends of their debts. He even extends his grace to Grant’s Oompa-Loompa, who had been stealing chocolate from Wonka, forgiving him and squaring off each other’s debts by inviting him to be his “chief chocolate taster” in his new factory. This gesture gently reminds viewers that while everyone deserves God’s judgment, God’s grace is extended to all. Wonka possesses some of the essential Christlike qualities each of us is asked to take on when we are born again. In a film that offers a surprising critique of deceitful systems, Wonka’s character is a template for how to interact in a world as sinful as ours.
Wonka dazzles for children and adults alike, bringing audiences into a world of pure imagination, full of lively color, fun music, and hopeful messaging about one’s place in the world. Underneath the film’s jovial nature, however, lies a real, serious truth about the nature of God’s justice. James 4:12 tells us, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.” We must not forget there is a real, all-powerful presence who is the true judge. And yet, though God will one day enact his final judgment, he also offers the gift of grace, calling those who accept it to live lives filled with grace as we navigate a world in which corruption and oppression abound. Just as judgment comes in “unexpected forms,” truths about God’s nature, our world, and our role as grace-givers can be found in this fantastical family film.