Film Review: Wonka
Director: Paul King
Heyday Films and The Roald Dahl Story Company
In Theaters: 12.15
This fall moviegoing season has been crowded with biopics, battlefield epics, concert films and more, catering to a wide variety of complex tastes. It’s a good time to enjoy something light and sweet, and nobody does sweet better than Wonka.
This prequel introduces us to a youthful Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name, Dune), who has been at sea for seven years, cooking aboard a ship and honing his craft as an inventor of fine chocolate recipes. Following a dream—and a promise made to his late Mama (Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water)—Wonka goes to a conveniently nameless European city and heads straight for Galeries Gourmet, the home of the most exceptional chocolate, hoping to make a name for himself. While Wonka meets resistance from the Chocolate Cartel, made of up chocolatiers Slugworth (Patterson Joseph, Timeless), Prodnose (Matt Lucas, Doctor Who) and Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton, The Wrong Mans), who run things around town and keep the Chief of Police (Keegen-Michael Key, Schmigadoon!) on retainer in the form of chocolate bribes, Wonka also gets a lot of support from the friends he makes, especially young Noodle (Calah Lane, The Day Shall Come), an orphan girl who has never tasted chocolate.
While making a bonafide prequel to the beloved 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory could have easily resulted in merely adding a bitter aftertaste to a classic. Wonka’s producers have found the perfect ingredient in writer-director Paul King, who gave us the Paddington films. King is peerless when it comes to light, family-friendly adventure, and Wonka is a delectable treat from start to finish. It’s easy to say that the songs by Neil Hannon aren’t as memorable as those in the original musical, and while they’re good, it’s a fair statement. On the other hand, we haven’t had 52 years of them being a part of the collective consciousness either, and in time some of them will have a similar place of honor. There are also enough callbacks to classics from the original to please any fan.
The combination of energetic and upbeat musical numbers, on-point comedy and a story full of genuine sweetness that never feels artificial is a recipe for joy, and it’s far more than any other much-hyped live action musical film can boast this season. Wonka knows that it’s not a great drama and doesn’t try to put up any pretense, which makes the moments of emotional resonance well-earned and genuine. The production design is colorful and appealing, and the visual effects, including Hugh Grant’s appearance as Lofty, a small orange Oompa Loompa, are top of the line.
Chalamet is outstanding in the titular role, filling the screen with innocent, boyish charm and magnetism. While his take on the character is certainly less manic than Gene Wilder’s and doesn’t have a trace of the subversively cynical streak wesee in the original film, this is a prequel that takes place before Willy Wonka was beaten down in life and became disillusioned. The performance meshes well with the person Wonka would have been at this age and perfectly sets up how he would have seen so much of young Charlie Bucket in himself.
Chalamet and Lane have such tender chemistry, with a brother and sister-like dynamic, that one almost feels jealous of how much fun they must have had on set. Grant is amusing as the lone Oompa Loompa, and the Chocolate Cartel get their own share of laughs. Key is one our most talented comedic actors and gives it everything he’s got, though the gag of his chocolate addiction wears thin quickly. By the time it gets to putting him in a fat suit, it becomes the lowlight of the movie. Academy Award-winner Olivia Colman deserves major props for disappearing into the delightfully silly role of Mrs. Scrubbit, the villainous woman who runs the boarding house where Willy and Noodle live, and Rowan Atkinson (The Lion King, Mr. Bean) is a hoot as Father Julius, a corrupt priest.
Wonka averages out to be a highly enjoyable family film that may not reaches the level of inspiration that we saw from Paddington, but it’s a delicious holiday treat that will please audiences of all ages. Wonka delivers enough goofy fun and pure imagination to earn a very enthusiastic recommendation. –Patrick Gibbs