Director: Paul King
Writers: Simon Farnaby, Paul King, (Based on the character of Roald Dahl)
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins, Paterson Joseph, Keegan-Michael Key, Rowan Atkinson
Duration: 166 minutes
Available in: Theatres
In the opening scenes of Wonka, a young Willy arrives somewhere in Europe, 12 silver sovereigns in hand. In a matter of minutes, his funds are almost depleted courtesy of the exorbitant prices prevailing in the city — he even has to pay a fine for daydreaming. As he strolls down a street, a destitute woman appeals to him. Willy extends his hand to her with a smile, holding out his last two sovereigns. "Take as much as you need," he says. Welcome to the Timothée Chalamet flavoured Willy Wonka, a confectionery that’s pretty to look at, and also overflowing with kindness and generosity.
The whimsical world of Wonka is Paul King's imaginative take on the iconic chocolatier's origin story, a departure from the darker tones of previous adaptations. King and co-writer Simon Farnaby take us to Europe's elite chocolate marketplace, the Galeries Gourmet, where a budding chocolatier named Willy Wonka (Chalamet), comes with hopes of opening a chocolate shop.
There are many references to writer Roald Dahl’s original work. For instance, the trio that makes "The Chocolate Cartel" are Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) whom readers of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will remember as the competitors who put spies in Willy Wonka’s factories and tried to steal his inventive ideas. In this film, they run a cartel, replete with an underground lair, guarded by corrupted priests. The best of the lot is Rowan Atkinson as Father Julius, a chocoholic who says, "One day we'll be judged for our sins, but it's not going to be today," before he downs one piece of chocolate after another.
King and Farnaby inject a delightful lightness into this world while retaining Dahl's template of awful grown-ups and rebellious children who manage to outwit the adults every time. Most of the film is sanitised and simplified with characters who lack the complexity found in Wonka's chocolates, but it still works. Apart from the cartel, there’s also the menacing duo of Bleacher (Tom Davis) and Mrs Scrubbit (played with campy bully energy by Olivia Colman) who run a launderette and trick people into working for them. Mrs Scrubbit seems like a troubling combination of Miss Trunchbull from Matilda and Aunt Sponge from James and the Giant Peach. There’s a lesson about always reading the fine print that audiences of all ages should heed.
Chalamet's portrayal of Wonka is a breath of fresh air, free from the shadows of his predecessors. It helps that King’s Willy Wonka is very much his own person. He’s not as quirky as Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and neither is he the slightly unhinged, definitely creepy Willy Wonka that Johnny Depp played in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Chalamet's Willy is sweet, kind, brilliant and has both an enviable jawline as well as oodles of charm. Chalamet’s baby face (which he recently rapped about on Saturday Night Live) brings a soft likeability to this character that strays from the source material. This iteration of Willy Wonka offers a fresh start, by being slightly goofy and bright-eyed in his enthusiasm — he tap dances, sings with flair — and comes without the eerie discomfort associated with Wonka’s previous avatars.
Wonka exudes the buoyant simplicity of musicals intended for young audiences. The airy and hummable music by Joby Talbot, complemented by the sweet (even if they aren’t memorable) lyrics from Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, keeps us entertained throughout the breezy 166-minute runtime. While Chalamet's Willy may be a little vanilla, in times of complexity, where comfort and hope are sought, a touch of vanilla might be exactly what we need. The strongest parts of the film are the moments between Willy and Noodle (Calah Lane), who become friends and business partners. Willy helps Noodle see the silver lining, and Noodle helps set up Willy’s business. There’s a beautiful song that Willy sings for Noodle during which we get to see an elegant recreation of a tender moment that reminds us of The Artist (2011). At the launderette, Willy and Noodle find a rag-tag group of unlikely heroes who form an alliance and create magic together.
Dahl's fiction has faced criticism for political incorrectness in recent years, but Wonka avoids these issues by imagining a version of Wonka’s fantastical world that is more aligned to our contemporary values. Wonka’s parental issues are mellowed, and his relationship with his mother (Sally Hawkins) is tender and beautiful. He is no longer forcing the Oompa-Loompa to partake in unpaid labour. Instead, he’s held accountable for looting Loompaland by Lofty, a stiff-upper-lipped Oompa-Loompa played by Hugh Grant. For those of us raised in former colonies, there's an undeniable irony in a man as posh and white and British as Hugh Grant earnestly seeking reparations for the plundering of their resources. The film has many such instances where the ridiculousness makes for moments of self-aware, lightweight humour. Fickelgruber, for instance, retches every time he hears the word “poor,” and the ever-growing Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) sells his soul for 1,800 boxes of chocolate. While effectively critiquing greed and capitalism, the film maintains a bubbly tone, steering clear of the gut-wrenching laughter that often accompanies heavier satire.
What this allows Wonka to be is a fresh reimagination of a childhood classic, unburdened by the issues of the source material. We don’t know if Chalamet’s Willy will transform into a stranger, creepier version of Wonka in the future, but these prophecies aren’t any of our concern either. Wonka is refreshing for being a standalone film, with no dangling promise of a sequel at the end. It's a heartwarming family holiday film, brimming with hope, joy, and magic.