Long before he had a chocolate factory or a glass elevator, Willy Wonka [Chalamet] was an aspiring chocolatier, out to seek fame and fortune with his brand of offbeat and unusual chocolates. But upon arrival in the… unnamed European city… he finds he is held back by law enforcement in the pocket of the three leading chocolate makers, as well as indebted to a pair of scheming ne’er-do-wells. But with the help of fellow captive, Noodle [Lane], Wonka is able to sneak out and illegally sell his unmatchable chocolate while avoiding the long arm of the law.
Wonka is another in a long line of unnecessary prequels, but by pairing Paul King’s seemingly unbeatable joviality with the deceptive grimness of both Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens, what we end up with is something delightfully refined. In fact, from the very opening scene, you’re dropkicked by the sheer charm, humour and whimsy, thanks to the opening song: A Hatful of Dreams. Rather than cautiously holding back or posing as something else, Wonka launches into proceedings with wholly infectious songs, a score that pays homage to the 1971 release’s music, and a wryly dark humour that sets the tone fantastically. All of which builds to a pace and momentum that carries you through the runtime with ease, not even pausing to contemplate the questionable undertone of the world created. Case in point, when the chief of police orders a man to monitor every storm drain in the city, his second in command asks if that’s wise considering all the unsolved murders. But this query is gleefully batted away with a “No, no. This is our top priority.”
In terms of characterisation, this version of Willy Wonka isn’t that different from the source material. He has a passion, zeal and energy which are unrivalled, and all of it is sunk into his one true calling: making the most unexpected and playful chocolates. And Chalamet hits that childish mirth and sublime sense of innocent wonder magnificently. His Wonka is a truly innocent soul making his way in a cruel world of crooked chancers and gatekeepers. A cheeky but stalwart individual whose zest tends to make him somewhat oblivious to the actual perils around him. Which I believe to be sold well enough to make it charming rather than irritating, but there will of course be viewers who find this conviction and sprightliness draining.
Much like Paddington, Wonka is packed with supporting roles from British comic talent. Meaning if you’ve watched any British TV over the last decade, it’ll be impossible to sit still thanks to a veritable who’s-who of cameos. Thankfully none of it is distracting, and everyone matches the film’s magnetic tenor. There are, of course, two interesting acting points of note. The first is Wonka’s confidant and ally, Noodle. Lane’s performance adds a healthy dose of reality and scepticism to Wonka’s madcap ambitions. But it all stems from a lifetime of disappointment and misery. Beneath the exterior, she’s desperate to be happy but fearful of giving into hope. On paper, this is a very simple character to portray, and one with a fairly predictable arc, but the execution is so decently performed, that it almost doesn’t matter. And then we have Hugh Grant as the film’s primary Oompa Loompa. There is, naturally, going to be a lot of debate about whether a role that has historically been played by dwarf actors should go to someone who isn’t a dwarf. In truth, we should be pushing for dwarf actors to be in all kinds of roles but to be shut out of one that feels like an active chance to be cast, is understandably frustrating. If we look solely at the performance however, I think this iteration of the character works incredibly well and adds a nice touch of silliness that doesn’t outstay its welcome. But, at the same time, isn’t apologetic about including this iconic element.
Now, as spectacular a surprise as this movie ended up being, it does have some drawbacks. A few minor points being that, in the final third the film momentarily forgets it’s a musical (which feels like a shame considering how well the musical component is integrated) and the fact that while Chalamet sings aptly, he never hits the theatre highs you may want. Meaning every song, no matter how enjoyable, feels like it falls just shy of a triumphant crescendo. But, in earnest, these are fairly paltry gripes. The real stone in the shoe is that despite commendable best efforts, Wonka can’t surpass the whackiness and impact of the chocolate factory. And although the Gene Wilder film is over fifty years old, there are those who will see everything this release accomplishes and simply shrug saying “I just don’t think it’s as good.” Which is a damned shame.
But if we take what’s given at face value, putting ourselves in the shoes of children of today, it’s undeniable that this is a whimsical tale of fancy that will delight. All because King has an uncanny way of injecting a lot of legitimate heart and joy in a film I didn’t want but apparently needed. Giving Wonka the makings of a bona fide Christmas classic.
08 December 2023
The Scene To Look Out For:
Wonka’s main obstacle is the trio of chocolate makers called the chocolate cartel. In classic Dahl fashion, they’re quirky villains in the same vein as the farmers from Fantastic Mr. Fox. Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton play each of them incredibly well but it’s the interplay that sells it. And one of the prime examples is when Key, as the Chief of Police, utters the word “poor,” which causes Baynton’s character to wretch. It may not sound like much but it’s these little touches that highlight King and Simon Farnaby’s winning writing which has garnered them so much success in truly wholehearted family cinema.
Olivia Colman and Tom Davis play Mrs. Scrubbit and Bleacher respectively – the underhand laundry owners who con down-on-their-luck visitors into a life of indentured servitude. There’s a cartoonishness to their wickedness that feels right off the pages of Matilda or Oliver Twist. And, of course, Colman and Davis understand and execute this assignment to the fullest.
“That’s a shame, it you thought the chocolate was weird, you’re gonna hate what happens next.”
In A Few Words:
“For a movie no one was clambering for, Wonka is a very satisfyingly wholesome affair.”
Total Score: 4/5