Writer-director Paul King’s reimagining of the world of Roald Dahl‘s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sure-fire hit. Timothée Chalamet is the heart and soul of Wonka. This dazzling prequel could have easily fallen in line with modern, run-of-the-mill movie musicals if it weren’t for this actor’s undeniable charm. Just like King’s two cherished Paddington films, there is just so much to love in this easy-going origin story.
The film begins with a young Willy Wonka arriving at the place his late mother (played in flashback by Sally Hawkins) always talked about when he was a child, the famous Gallery Gourmet in London. It’s here at the center of chocolate making that Wonka wishes to make his mark on the world, but he first arrives with only a kind heart, little belongings, and a portable chocolate-making station to his name. Desperate to find lodging, Willy is tricked into staying at a hotel where he naively signs a contract that prevents him from leaving. Sneaking out during the day to share his chocolate with the locals, people soon begin to realize his products are far better than those of the local so-called “Chocolate Cartel.”
Made up of Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), the greedy Chocolate Cartel is willing to do whatever it takes to keep out any kind of competition – even if means bribing the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to carry out their dirty work. The snobby trio stands in the way of Willy Wonka’s dream to open a chocolate shop in the Gallery Gourmet. If this wasn’t enough already, Willy also starts to realize that entire jars of his sweets begin to mysteriously disappear as he attempts to spread the word about his game-changing recipes. He questions if it’s him eating his products in his sleep or if his theory of a small orange man with green hair stealing his wondrous confections is true.
What ensues is an enjoyable romp that boasts numerous infectious musical numbers and toe-tapping sequences that are beyond the viewer’s imagination. Families will undoubtedly fall in love with Wonka, as it makes for the ideal holiday season treat. Albeit, the script, co-written by Simon Farnaby of the Them There theatrical production collective, is quite simplistic but with very believable stakes, reminding one of a carefree Disney musical. The few flaws that are present in Wonka are overcome by just how utterly charming and cheeky the cast ensemble is, with Timothée Chalamet right at the gooey center.
Filmmaker Paul King perfectly takes jabs at the elite and corrupt by continuously prodding at endless clichés. Those who play the posh and elite characters, like Matthew Baynton who is top-notch hilarious as the evil Fickelgruber, are excellently directed by King to be so annoyingly snootish that one can’t stand them. This embeds the audience from the very beginning firmly in Willy Wonka’s pocket. At the same time, the whimsical yet slightly dark characters that oppose Willy call back to those in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
The delightful wittiness of the Paddington movies is felt in Wonka from start to finish. Paul King finds a fine balance between childish fun, adventure, and mature themes that can be appreciated by people of all ages. Whenever one of these aspects nears crossing the line, another steps in to save the day. This prequel’s simplicity and naivety could prove to be a tough challenge to overcome for those seeking something less light-hearted. But then again, who is going into Wonka hoping for something super serious?
Wonka’s origin story is inventive enough to separate itself from 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, while still retaining some of the blunt humor of that film. Most of the darker elements taken from Dahl’s book and seen in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are non-existent in Wonka as it seeks to explore the famous chocolate-maker from a more favorable, inventive angle. It’s more about the magic of the chocolate he makes than the allure of endless sweets in an enticing factory. Wonka rewrites the very DNA of the titular protagonist to create a far more palatable and lovable character fit for an actor like Chalamet to tackle.
Timothée Chalamet is pitch-perfect as the beloved Willy Wonka, his performance carries tons of magnetism as he toes the line between spunky humor and endearing drama. Joining Chalamet is an expansive ensemble cast of brilliant actors, including Jim Carter, Tom Davis, Natasha Rothwell, Rich Fulcher, and Rakhee Thakrar. But only a few of these faces manage to leave an impression. Hugh Grant plays Lofty, a scene-stealing Oompa Loompa who’s going to get the most laughs from many theater crowds. Another one to draw the big laughs is Rowan Atkinson as Father Julius, a chocolate-obsessed priest. Olivia Colman is comically despicable as Wonka’s hotel captor, Mrs. Scrubbit. Colman bears a great Cockney accent as she does her rendition of Oliver Twist‘s Fagin. Finally, newcomer Calah Lane gets her time to shine and pull at the heartstrings as Wonka’s younger partner in crime, Noodle.
Wonka looks splendid and is supremely colorful thanks to the eclectic cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung. Best known for his collaborations with director Park Chan-wook on films like Oldboy and The Handmaiden and other notable works like Last Night in Soho, Chung doesn’t shy away from embracing the dreamy, magical nature of Roald Dahl’s original book as the bright visuals pair superbly with the absurdity on screen. Likewise, production designer Nathan Crowley and costume designer Lindy Hemming’s contributions are vivid and take bold strokes to establish Paul King’s dazzling, yet somewhat grungy musical world.
Paul King’s new take on Roald Dahl’s iconic chocolatier leaves its mark as a charming and whimsical musical that takes some well-earned liberties. Timothée Chalamet once again proves his worth by delivering a wonderful and endearing performance as he sings and dances to the sound of Willy Wonka’s new songs, created by The Divine Comedy lead singer Neil Hannon and composer Joby Talbot. King and Warner Bros. have a holiday hit on their hands, it’s easy to imagine families embracing the pure imagination of Wonka to the fullest.