For decades, children around the world have loved Willy Wonka. And it makes perfect sense; who wouldn’t want to worship someone who peddles exclusively in making candy? Whether played by the wiseacre, but warm Gene Wilder, or the strange, emo, and slick Johnny Depp, movies have always portrayed Wonka as a hero with a heart, and with more than a few lessons up his sleeve.
Paul King’s Wonka passes the mantle to modern millennial “babygirl”, Timothy Chalamet. Familiarity with Chalomet’s body of work reveals many dark, and dramatic performances. Until a recent SNL stint, viewers didn't even know he could do comedy. At its heart, Wonka retells the Willy Wonka story for a new generation, and with Chalamet in the lead, it works.
The Chocolate Cartel
The film was co-written by King and Simon Farnaby, based on a story written by King himself. As the writer and director of the intimately popular Paddington films, King knows how to construct a family film that goes a bit deeper than the surface. In this iteration, audiences see Wonka as he sets sail for the big city. Therein lies a fabled market where his dreams of making chocolate can at last come true. Wonka learned the craft from his Mamma (Sally Hawkins), and after she passes away, he heads to the market to fulfill his destiny.
Sadly, even the best-laid plans can get detoured, or even sabotaged. There’s a Chocolate Cartel in town made of three of the city’s best (and only) candy makers. There’s the slimy Mr. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), the finicky Mr. Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), and the persnickety Mr. Prodnose (Matt Lucas). With the help of a chocoholic priest (Rowan Atkinson) and a corrupt police chief (Keegan-Michael Key), the cartel conspires to get Wonka out of the way – permanently.
From the moment Wonka steps foot on land, he learns that hospitality is not a strong suit of the town. He’s convinced to rent a room by Mr. Bleacher (Tom Davis) from Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Coleman), the local laundry lady. Both find the gullible Mr. Wonka an easy mark and set him on a path that leads even further from his dreams. He does make some friends along the way. As soon as she saw Willy, Noodle (Calah Lane) seemed to find a new big brother to help. She and Willy work together to free themselves along with Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), Comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Simon Farnaby), Operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), and Accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter). All became victims of Mrs. Scrubbit’s duplicitousness and decided to work together to escape.
The cherry on the sundae is seeing the origin of Willy Wonka meeting (and perturbing) his first Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant). Wonka represents a way to create an original property based on a beloved text. The Roald Dahl novel has enchanted young readers for generations, and the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory became an instant classic. In that vein, King pays homage to the classic while allowing Chalomet to carve out his own Willy Wonka.
Making Wonka His Own
On the surface, Chalamet seems like an odd choice, and he really does reach outside of his assumed comfort zone. He’s loud, he’s boisterous, he sings and dances! He’s still the crown prince of the 50-yard stare, but he understands comedic timing and how to land a joke. It’s a welcome surprise from his usual subtle performances, and he handles the transition well. He teems with charm and infectious energy, but he does lack a devil-may-care attitude missing that punctuated Wilder’s Wonka so well.
Critics could wave the lack of Wonka's hubris off as Chalamet playing a younger, less polished Wonka. I suspect, however, Chalamet maybe trying a little too hard to go against type. There’s a world of experience between Wilder’s cynical portrayal and Chalamet’s hopeless optimist, and I don’t expect Chalamet to be a misanthrope, but every version of Wonka has a sheen of caution. That said, the performance mirrored the film itself: it was fun, sincere and silly!
Cinemas have seen a rash of severe movies with grave topics of late. Even the comedies like Dream Scenario and Poor Things have very explicit themes. Very few family-friendly films that offer just plain fun to watch have made it to the multiplex. While Chalamet and newcomer Lane do a fantastic job, the real kudos go to the villains, particularly Paterson Joseph.
First, Rowan Atkinson, as a priest who inadvertently quotes Monty Python, gets an automatic star. Olivia Coleman’s teeth do about as much heavy lifting as she does, and it’s a joy to watch. The same can be said of Tom Davis’s hapless romantic, but still bad, Mr. Bleacher. He yearns for the heart of Mrs. Scrubit, no matter how cold and dead it is. Even Keegan Michael Key’s nefarious lawman is the Tweedle Dum the doctor ordered. All of these actors are excellent and memorable in their roles, but the Chocolate Cartel, led by Slugworth’s amazing facial expressions, is really the heart of films like these.
Joseph plays Slugworth as unabashedly bad, and wonderfully annoyed that someone would dare try to knock him from the top. The movie offers him no redemption, or acts of mercy and kindness–he’s just bad and it’s a treat to watch. Hugh Grant’s Oompa-Loompa also makes the most of his scenes. Utterly charming in a way that few actors other than Hugh Grant can pull off, his Oompa-Loompa wants to collect business and nothing more and has no interest in Wonka beyond repaying a debt…or so he tells himself.
Seeing these two connect adds a lot of context to the Oompa-Loompa/Wonka partnership, and the fact that a lot of viewers care about their friendship just goes to show how important this property is to so many viewers. King understands how to tug at the heartstrings of his audience if the cult status of Paddington II hints at anything, and he uses those skills to present a film that’s fun, bright, cheery, and enjoyable.
There are some peculiarities, like why is the chocolate so crunchy? But the audience will overlook these minor quibbles while drinking in the visual delights. The dances were choreographed by Lou Castro, who worked on Newsies: The Broadway Musical, and he prefers lots of people with big moves, which works well for the scale of the film. Both familiar and original music appear in the film and balance nicely against each other, so be prepared to bounce your knee along to the beat.
Wonka is truly a fun family delight that will welcome repeat viewings.
The film arrives in theaters on December 15th, 2023 after the London premiere and release on December 8th, 2023. We've got the latest on movies in theaters now.
Score: 7/10 SPECS.