Childhoods were made or broken by Mel Stuart’s 1971 Roald Dahl adaptation Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Gene Wilder’s irreverent, eclectic iteration of the elusive chocolatier was as captivating as he was terrifying, and many moments in the film personally caused me genuine trauma. But whether the film hijacked your seven-year-old brain or delighted you, there’s no denying that Wilder created the seminal onscreen version of the character.
WONKA ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
So it was with trepidation that many people anticipated Paul King’s prequel film Wonka, an original story by King written with screenwriter Simon Farnaby. It imagines an early version of Willy Wonka, who arrives in a vague, whimsical European city with the dream of opening his own chocolate and candy shop in the swanky Galeries Gourmet. Played with genuine appeal by Timothée Chalamet, Willy is naïve, wide-eyed and mad for chocolate, a love he inherited from his mother (Sally Hawkins). He’s sure his uniquely-crafted sweets will win over the city—the first one he demonstrates makes the eater fly—but the so-called Chocolate Cartel doesn’t want a newbie taking over their business.
Willy isn’t the assured candymaker played by Wilder, but he’s just as odd and off-center. Chalamet’s Wonka, who sings and dances his way through the musical film, is quirky and charming, with a top hat that’s filled with mysteries and daily necessities alike. He can’t read, which poses a problem when a sneaky innkeeper named Mrs. Scrubit (a cartoonish Olivia Colman) offers him a room as long he signs a lengthy contract. He does, having not perused the fine print, and finds himself trapped in the service of her laundry business alongside a resourceful orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane).
Willy is forced to “scrub scrub,” as the accompanying song goes, with his fellow captors Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell) and Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). With the help of Noodle, however, Willy sneaks out to hock his wares across the city while dodging the police chief (Keegan-Michael Key), who is in the pocket of the cartel. This leads to fun, light-hearted sequences, like when Willy and Noodle sneak into the local zoo to procure milk from a giraffe named Abigail.
Chalamet embraces the opportunity with enthusiasm, as do his co-stars. But it’s Hugh Grant as a cheeky orange Oompa Loompa seeking Willy’s chocolate who steals the show. Grant, who played the villain in King’s triumphant masterpiece Paddington 2, chews the scenery and then spits it out all over the screen (his credits song performance is one of the movie’s most entertaining moments). While most of the movie’s music is original for Wonka, written by Neil Hannon, Grant gets to revive the iconic “Oompa Loompa” from the 1971 film. Chalamet gives a new take on “Pure Imagination,” but it’s his new tune “A World of Your Own” that lands with the most pop.
Like King’s Paddington films, Wonka is stylish, with its own set of visual rules. The sets, which embrace a range of European influences, are colorful and fun and often defy the laws of physics. It feels almost like a theater production than a film and King plays into this sensibility with practical effects and grandiose set pieces that play host to great musical numbers. Because it’s a musical the performances are big, buoyant and sometimes ridiculous, but it’s all in good fun. The film is charming and warm-hearted, much like Paddington and its sequel, and the onscreen delight is infectious.
Unlike in Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, there is no malice in Wonka. The stakes are low, even when Willy finds himself in peril thanks to the cartel, Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) and Prodnose (Matt Lucas). The climatic sequence, where Willy, Noodle and their laundry pals attempt to infiltrate the cartel’s hideout under the city cathedral, is flighty and entertaining, but not too scary for young viewers. Everything about King’s version is kind-hearted. It’s a movie about a dreamer that encourages dreaming. It allows its characters to work together and find happiness. While two characters do find themselves immersed in chocolate, no one blows up like a blueberry or gets sucked into a tube. There’s no trauma here, only whimsy and levity. Give King more childhood characters to work his magic on.
(One important note before you head to the theater: Bring chocolate. You will want it when you see the sweet treats on the screen.)
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.