Review: Wonka

Cadbury’s to Tim Burton’s Hershey’s, this prequel to Dahl’s classic story is delightful.

Enthusiastic but naïve chocolatier Willy Wonka returns from adventures in the wilderness to give the world his amazing chocolate inventions. However, the Chocolate Cartel will have none of it, and will do anything to stop a threat to their businesses.

Directed by Paul King (the Paddington movies) and staring Timothee Chalamet (Dune) Olivia Colman (Empire of Light) and dozens of other familiar British faces (such as Matt Lucas, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, and many more) is an extremely British affair. Wonka also sports a rather suspicious title card: “The Roald Dahl Co.” which suggests more movie adaptations and spin-offs are to follow. Hopefully these are as entertaining as this entry was, and won’t drag Dahl’s legacy through the muck.

First things first. Wonka is a musical comedy. Maybe not surprising to some, but to others the immediacy of the music numbers might come from nowhere. We see Timothee Chalamet arriving by boat, full of hope and merriment, to the big city. But very quickly we find his naivety and confidence in others preyed upon; he loses all of his money in mere moments, and becomes a servant of a laundry service racket owned by Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). His hopes are finally dashed when his faith in his chocolate providing for him crumbles before The Chocolate Cartel (Paterson Joseph’s Slugworth, Matt Lucas’s Prodnose, and Mathew Baynton’s Fickelgruber). All he has left is the support of an orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane) and the others trapped as laundry slaves. Can Wonka show the world his amazing chocolates?

One of the many colourful music numbers

The film takes notes from the classic (and much beloved) Gene Wilder film adaptation from 1971. Willy Wonka has his purple coat and brown top hat, and the film’s Oompa loompa (played bafflingly by Hugh Grant) is styled after the 1971 film. Unsurprisingly, little was taken from the Tim Burton 2005 remake. Indeed, Wonka is a prequel to the book, not a sequel or a remake. We see a chocolatier trying to find his place in the big city, what drives him and a more grounded character. Of course, Chalamet is still a goof, and gives his own interpretation of the eccentric loner. It is a charming portrayal for the most part.

But it is the supporting cast that is most under scrutiny. Willy Wonka is one thing, but even the original book was not about him. Luckily, director Paul King has a host of British stars who can deliver Dahl-esque performances. Especially Olivia Colman’s Scrubbit and her stooge Bleacher (Tom Davis) as well as a corrupt Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) who cannot get enough of delicious chocolates. These characters are funny and each have a part to play in the story.

Visually, the film is quite stunning (certainly some audience members agreed, from the sounds of things) and though this is from before the famous Willy Wonka factory, they still manage to show off some delightful sets and chocolate-making toys. Especially enjoyed was Wonka’s miniaturized wooden factory suitcase with many tiny bottles of weird ingredients.

Chalamet and Grant meet under… jarring circumstances?

Roald Dahl’s writings are always a goldmine, and these adaptations will never end. However one wonders how well received this film will be by younger audiences today? Without the child-centric story of the original book, Wonka is heavily driven by scenes of how to “open a business”, and our villains aren’t cartoonish children, they are cartoonish businessmen defending their companies. We have “small print” and “terms of conditions”, bribery, heists. In between the music numbers and pretty visuals are more adult-orientated themes that very small children might not engage with.

That’s not to say it is too dour. There’s a giraffe at one point!

Chalamet is a good Willy Wonka, but it is also understandable that audiences will still hold Gene Wilder higher. Chalamet is good; he has a sharp, unusual features and a spark in his eyes that evoke eccentric. But sometimes it feels like a switch is triggered at times, and his performance revs up for a heartbeat before settling down again. “Makin’ chocolate a-course.” he will quip, gaining an oddly southern accent for a moment.
It is fleeting, and could simply be the surreal character being unpredictable as well.

Overall, though, this film was a really nice time. There was a lot of hesitation going into it as the chocolate barrel had been well and truly scraped, but there was enough here to become a fresh start! For a prequel, it felt genuine.

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