THE STORY – The story of how Willy Wonka goes from a young adult selling chocolate in a small shop to an eccentric genius known all over the world.
THE CAST – Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, Tom Davis, Olivia Colman & Hugh Grant
THE TEAM – Paul King (Director/Writer) & Simon Farnaby (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
In recent years, family-friendly cinema has been tough to find outside of the realms of animation. Nearly every significant new release skews to the PG-13 crowd at the risk of alienating teens and young adults. Outside of straight-to-streaming TV movies, studios seem reluctant to engage young families looking for entertainment. Enter Paul King. The British director has perfected the art of the family film. His two “Paddington” films featured a unique charm that won over audiences and critics alike, proving there’s still an appetite for this sort of filmmaking. King’s near-perfect run continues with “Wonka,” which is yet another cinematic delight. This prequel to 1971’s “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” looks at the younger years of the famous chocolatier. While unabashedly whimsical, the film carries a heartfelt tone, promising abundant enjoyment for families during this holiday season.
Roald Dahl’s beloved Willy Wonka had to start somewhere, and that’s what Paul King, alongside co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby, hopes to explore in “Wonka.” Academy Award-nominee Timothée Chalamet stars as the titular character, entering the film as a boy who dreams of becoming the world’s greatest chocolatier. Armed with a suitcase-sized chocolate factory and a couple of sovereigns in his pocket, he makes his way to the big city. He aims to join the ranks of the best chocolate sellers around: Prodnose (Matthew Lucas), Ficklegruber (Matthew Baynton), and the infamous Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), who each run chocolate shops in a local town square. They’re competitors who secretly dominate the chocolate market by working together to maximize profits and, most importantly, prevent others from entering the chocolate scene. When the singing, top-hat-wearing Wonka enters the competition, they bribe the local police (headed by Keegan-Michael Key) to shut him down, preventing him from selling his beloved chocolate to the enchanted townsfolk. He’s further set back when two crafty hotel managers, played by Tom Davis and the incomparable Olivia Colman, deceive Wonka into owing them thousands of dollars, essentially trapping him in indentured servitude.
So much of what made the “Paddington” films successful continues in “Wonka.” King’s distinctive, elevated visual style harmoniously aligns with Roald Dahl’s imaginative world. The colors are vibrant and alluring, with a stunning production design that isn’t afraid to build out a slightly silly world where characters embrace over-the-top antics with entertaining results. While Wonka dons his classic purple ensemble, each of the scheming chocolatiers has their own color scheme for their outfits. Additionally, Colman and Davis are grimy and dirtied up, resembling the spitting image of a greedy, Dickensian villain. All of this beautiful craftwork amplifies the cartoonish nature of the movie’s tone and reassures the audience that it’s never taking itself too seriously. A case in point is an animated Hugh Grant playing a tiny, orange Oompa Loompa. While the visual effects are a bit wobbly, the absurd vision and design fit the rest of the film’s mood in all the right ways. Everyone is unified in following King’s vision, ensuring that every element stands out well.
“Wonka” repurposes some famous musical cues from the 1971 film, notably “Pure Imagination,” but thankfully avoids being too beholden to the original film which has a devoted following. With its own musical numbers, “Wonka” stands on its own two feet. Neil Hannon of the group The Divine Comedy penned the original songs, including the lovely “A World of Your Own,” creating a jaunty, self-aware soundtrack unafraid to have fun.
Chalamet is undoubtedly one of the best actors of his generation. His Wonka is amusing and charismatic, even if he never quite seems comfortable in the role. He shines more in films that utilize his naturalistic talents to subtle and dramatic effect. Nevertheless, he looks like he’s having a blast, and the sometimes chaotic energy he brings to Wonka’s quirks and mannerisms works well. He may not be the best singer or dancer, but his attempt to branch out and try something different is admirable. As stated before, everyone is dialed into what King is creating, even if some excel at it better than others. Colman is having just as much, if not more, fun chewing the scenery as the despicable Mrs. Scrubbit. The same goes for Joseph’s Slugworth, who pushes the character’s eccentricities right up to the line of being too much but never crossing it. The young Calah Lane also does a wonderful job as Noodle, functioning as a sidekick of sorts for Wonka as he attempts to escape Mrs. Scrubbit’s underground laundromat where other side characters, including “Downtown Abbey’s” Jim Carter, are confined until they pay back their debt to the swindling hotel owner. Not every moment in the story makes sense as moments preceding the film, including how Wonka became so good at making chocolate and his relationship with his mother, played by Sally Hawkins, leaves much to be desired. However, the cast’s commitment sells the more frivolous moments.
“Wonka” may not surpass the 1971 film, but it certainly does not dishonor its legacy. It’s a worthy successor to that film’s everlasting legacy (and will go a long way toward erasing the nightmarish horrors of Tim Burton’s 2005 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). Paul King’s “Wonka” radiates creativity, heart, and a commitment to joy. Its callback to “Pure Imagination” over the film’s ending credits also seems to work as a thematic guide throughout its runtime, and in doing so, has carved out its own sweet, delicious space for itself, which everyone can enjoy.