Wonka (2023) is a prequel film to the beloved story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Wonka tells the story of a young Willy Wonka, an up-and-coming chocolate salesman and magician, who challenges a chocolate cartel’s dominance.
As one could imagine, the film is full of scenes that cast private enterprise in a negative light. The main villains are stereotypical movie businessmen who will do anything, even murder, to achieve their ambition for higher profits. The cartel constantly violates Wonka’s private property, first by poisoning his merchandise and then by attempting to murder him.
Another scene shows Wonka signing a contract with hidden terms that essentially makes him a slave. With the legitimacy of this contract dubious, it is unlikely any just legal system would honor such a fraudulent contract. As a side note, the film even portrays the church as a corrupt institution where priests accept chocolate bribes in exchange for acting as a front for the cartel’s center of operations.
The movie clearly shows free enterprise in a negative light, but despite its flaws, there is a silver lining: its indictment of crony capitalism.
Even though evil businessmen are the main villains of the movie, these businessmen utilize the government to maintain their dominance over the chocolate industry. Without government intervention, there would be no conflict save for maybe Wonka needing to pay off those who unjustly enslaved him.
Wonka dreams of setting up a shop in the Galleries Gourmet, a highly trafficked center where established chocolate firms set up shop, which is riddled with onerous rules that punish new entrants to the market.
Empty storefronts have warnings such as “No Daydreaming,” which come with a schedule of fines that are vigorously enforced by the police. An early scene shows a cop admonishing Wonka for daydreaming, holding out his hand for payment of the fine. Such a rule would surely stifle potential competition for those who dream of opening their own shop.
Furthermore, the Galleries Gourmet strictly prohibits selling chocolate without a shop. This is the largest impediment to Wonka throughout most of the film. Without a shop, he does not have the legal legitimacy to operate his business. Wonka had to constantly stay one step ahead of the police. In a free society, he would not have had to deal with this prohibition (depending on who owns the ground upon which he sells chocolate). Instead, the police confiscate his earnings and remove him from the premises.
The cartel also uses extralegal methods to maintain their monopoly privilege. The chief of police is paid off by the chocolate cartel throughout the movie. He constantly pursues Wonka because of this.
All of this illustrates the alliance between government and big business. Large, incumbent firms support regulation that disproportionately harms new entrants to the market so as to protect their incumbency. This is called regulatory capture, an approach that holds that regulation serves the interests of dominant firms rather than the public interest. The procartel government interventions in Wonka are clearly no exception.
However, despite the government interventions that the chocolate cartel clearly benefits from, the movie chooses to focus on the villainous businessmen. The film reinforces this by portraying the public apparatus as not necessarily evil. In fact, a lower-level police officer is among the first people to show Wonka charity, giving him some money to pay for a room. This same police officer arrests the chief of police in the end for the chief’s corrupt behavior. Additionally, the chief of police is at first reluctant to continue his corrupt activities but is subsequently persuaded by the chocolate cartel’s deep pockets.
Returning to regulatory capture, it is important to note that the root of the problem is not business, but the government. If the government did not exist, then the business interests would be forced to compete without special privileges. In that case, Wonka’s ascent would have been a much shorter tale. Consequently, the movie should have given a more-nuanced image of the cartel, perhaps portraying them instead as crony, yet competent, businessmen, who would otherwise be moral actors in the absence of government intervention.
Ultimately, Wonka, though a charming and entertaining movie at times, portrays free enterprise in a negative light despite Wonka being an entrepreneur who is stifled by anticompetitive government policy. If one looks closely, Wonka is actually an indictment of cronyism. The legal system that Wonka is subject to enforces onerous fines, regulations, and fraudulent contracts, and this system has a police force that accepts bribes from incumbent firms. Unfortunately, the movie chooses to lambaste the evils of businessmen, portraying them as immoral and sometimes incompetent. For these reasons, I only cautiously recommend Wonka for its anticronyism undertones.
The movie would have been better off giving a more nuanced story rather than a black-and-white tale of a small-time entrepreneur going up against evil and oft-idiotic businessmen who sing and dance to the suffering of the disadvantaged.