Dir: Paul King. US. 2023. 116mins

A whimsical origin story for fiction’s most famous chocolatier, Wonka is guided by Timothee Chalamet’s confidently peculiar performance, which harnesses the spirit of Gene Wilder’s 1971 portrayal of the character without lapsing into mimicry. Director Paul King brings the same comic sweetness as his acclaimed Paddington pictures, but this delightful, frequently funny musical resides in its own cheeky, bighearted sphere – despite having to adhere to the rules that govern all potential franchises, which treat valuable intellectual property even more preciously than one of Wonka’s prized candies. 

This delightful, frequently funny musical resides in its own cheeky, bighearted sphere

Warner Bros unveils Wonka in the UK on December 8, with the US release taking place a week later. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, the 1971 adaptation of the Roald Dahl book which starred Wilder, remains beloved, while the 2005 Tim Burton-Johnny Depp reimagining Charlie And The Chocolate Factory collected $475 million worldwide. Chalamet’s star power, matched by audience familiarity with the character, should drive this prequel to strong holiday grosses. Oscar nominations in tech categories are a distinct possibility. 

Penniless but carrying a song in his heart, happy-go-lucky Willy Wonka (Chalamet) plans to open a chocolate shop in a quaint European-inspired fictional city. He quickly discovers, however, that the community’s three powerful chocolate-makers, dubbed the Chocolate Cartel (Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton), don’t want competition, recruiting the corrupt Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to keep him out of business. Undeterred, Wonka is determined to turn his dream into reality with the help of the plucky urchin Noodle (a sunny Calah Lane). 

As the original on-screen Wonka, Wilder has long been most moviegoers’ ideal version of the character; an eccentric, unpredictable inventor with an off-kilter comedic streak. Depp made the character far quirkier and odder — not to mention vaguely sinister — but Chalamet plays the younger Wonka as kind and mischievous, a wide-eyed optimist with his whole life ahead of him.

It’s a testament to Chalamet’s abundant charm that he renders such hopefulness endearing, as opposed to cloying, and the Oscar-nominated actor’s enthusiasm is both genuine and infectious. But Wonka is also coping with a melancholy backstory. His wish to start a shop is inspired by his dearly departed mother (Sally Hawkins), who instilled in him a desire to be good to others. Full of glee but nursing a broken heart, this Wonka has enough shading so that we understand how hard-earned his positivity is.

With films like Paddington 2, King has demonstrated an ability to create family films with deeper themes and emotional sophistication, capturing the wonderment of childhood without talking down to younger audiences. Reuniting with co-writer Simon Farnaby, he applies the same approach to Wonka, incorporating sight gags, silly bits of verbal sparring and joyful tunes (written by Neil Hannon) alongside the occasional darker digressions that are an homage to Dahl’s more jaundiced view of humanity. (Olivia Colman in particular relishes her role as Mrs. Scrubitt, an evil shopkeeper.) The film acknowledges real-life woes such as death, poverty and economic inequality but, much like Paddington, King sees in his protagonist a buoyant individual who still believes in people’s inherent decency — a belief that will be tested over the course of the film.

Admittedly, the picture does not entirely escape the grasp of industry forces that dictate that Wonka must not just connect to the overall franchise but also provide a bridge for future sequels. To his credit, King mostly finds organic, uncynical ways of tying his film to that larger universe, casting Paddington 2 villain Hugh Grant as Lofty, a wryly grumpy Oompa-Loompa who has a score to settle with Wonka. Joby Talbot’s wistful score cannily weaves in trace elements of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s indelible ‘Pure Imagination,’ viscerally connecting this prequel to the 1971 original while hinting at the fantastical chocolatier Wonka will soon become. Still, Wonka’s good cheer (and its message of championing the little guy) is slightly diminished by those corporate considerations — as well as by an overly plotty second half in which Wonka squares off with the Chocolate Cartel, leading to strained action set pieces.

Nevertheless, Hannon’s consistently fetching musical numbers are amplified by King’s unpretentious staging. In sequences like ‘For A Moment,’ where Wonka shows Noodle how beautiful the world is, the results can be as inventive and magical as any of Wonka’s concoctions. (And the film is a pleasure to look at, with production designer Nathan Crowley and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung crafting an urban landscape that is both realistic and fairytale-like.) Wonka is billed as “a Paul King confection,” and, like any sweet treat, the film provides significant satisfaction, even if too much of its whimsy could give you a bit of a tummy ache. But it sure is tasty.

Production company: Heyday Films

Worldwide distribution: Warner Bros

Producers: David Heyman, Alexandra Derbyshire, Luke Kelly 

Screenplay: Simon Farnaby & Paul King, story by Paul King, based on characters created by Roald Dahl

Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung

Production design: Nathan Crowley 

Editing: Mark Everson

Music: Joby Talbot

Main cast: Timothee Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, Natasha Rothwell, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant  

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By fcjyy