Wonka Review | Sweet Emotion

by Andrew Parker

A gleefully candy coated, infectiously toe tapping romp, director and co-writer Paul King’s Wonka takes a beloved children’s classic – both from the page and screen – and delivers yet another take on the material that will endure for generations to come. While there are plenty of nay-sayers who genuinely dislike Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from 2005 (and honestly, it isn’t THAT bad), there are legions of fans who hold the Gene Wilder starring Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory from 1971 as the definitive big screen adaptation of author Roald Dahl’s story of a candy loving eccentric who builds an empire. A prequel to Dahl’s source material, Wonka doesn’t try to ape any previous incarnations of the story outright, even if it skews closer to the older film than the newer one. But it’s also a film that defies any sort of comparisons. King – best known for the delightful Paddington movies – molds and shapes an entirely new path for the dapperly dressed gentleman at the heart of Wonka, and the results are nothing short of pure imagination.

In King and co-writer Simon Farnaby’s version of an origin story for the character, a young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) has just wrapped up a stint seeing the world as a cook onboard a ship, and is prepared to make a go of things as a chocolatier in the big city, hoping to open up a shop in the acclaimed Galerie Gourmet, home to the trendiest and most established sweet makers in the city. Almost immediately, and through no real fault of his own other than a bit of naivety, Wonka is left penniless and in debt to an unscrupulous hotelier (Olivia Colman), who forces those unfortunate enough to cross her path to work off their debts by spending years toiling in her basement laundry. While Willy can find ways of working around his captor to bring his creations to an adoring public, establishing himself as a major player in the candy game proves even harder, as a trio of influential chocolatiers (Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, and Mathew Baynton) will stop at nothing to keep the young upstart out of their territory. With the help of some fellow laundry workers, particularly a savvy young woman named Noodle (Calah Lane), Wonka carries on his sales in secret, avoiding the watchful eye of his captors and staying one step ahead of a crooked cop with a sweet tooth (Keegan-Michael Key) who’s in the pocket of the nefarious Chocolate Cartel.

Wonka is a hand-in-glove fit for King’s particular visual and storytelling sensibilities. Willy Wonka, in this version of the story, is a bright eyed optimist who makes a gloomy and glum world just a tad sunnier. His creations are fantastical and whimsical in the extreme, so there’s really so ceiling on the direction of the character. Want Wonka to make people fly via a candy containing the larvae of a rare bug? Not a problem. Want to have him break into a zoo so he can get milk from a giraffe to make his most decadent creation? Sure, why not? Want to put him into a potential battle with a bunch of chocoholic monks? No plan is too elaborate, and no idea too out there. The only limits are those of the imaginations of the creatives involved, and the energy is boundless and enthusiasm infectious. Wonka doesn’t only craft sweet visual treats, but a sustainable, well paced, phantasmagorical smile machine to go along with all the technical opulence.

Those who carry a huge affinity for Wilder’s more pointedly sarcastic take on the character or readers who hold Dahl’s source material as a text that shouldn’t be tinkered with might bristle at what King is trying to accomplish with Wonka. The darkness that was abundant in previous adaptations and in the books has been softened a bit (save for some bits involving the candy baron’s and Colman’s classically Dahl-ian, snivelling villain) But anyone who is capable of stepping outside those parameters will see the film for what it is: a chance to bring a new take on an old classic to this generation of readers and filmgoers. 

Much like the Paddington films (also a story of an unlikely fashion icon), the set design is rich, inviting, and offer just as much to dote upon as the story itself. Outside of Wonka’s trademark hat and overall attire, everything else about King’s vision for the character and the world he inhibits staunchly refuses to give in to pastiche, nostalgia, or clever callbacks, with the notable exception of a reworking of one of the 1971 version’s most classic songs. King and Farnaby take all of the literary and cinematic lore about the character as suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. The original songs from Neil Hannan might not be as lyrically memorable as those done by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley back in the 70s, but they’re still strong and tuneful. The visual effects, costuming, and overall production design are top of the line. The cinematography by the masterful Chung-Hoon Chung (Oldboy, Stoker, Last Night in Soho) makes sure to capture as much as the human eye can possibly process within the frame. Even when some of the story developments start to become a bit, um, wonky, King and his craftspeople always maintain an acute sense of interest and wonderment.

While there’s a certain degree of frivolity that goes hand in hand exploring the untold origin story of an arguably timeless character, Wonka makes sure to have its heart and mind in the right place at all times. The exploration of Willy and Noodle’s bittersweet backstories provides a lot of emotional depth, but none of that is anything that hasn’t been done before and better. The real gooey centre of Wonka lies in its overall cultural critique, and it crafts a message about capitalism that sets itself apart from director Mel Stuart’s version of events. In Wonka, there’s a frequent refrain that “the greedy beat the needy every time,” and its hard not to be struck by the timeliness of such a viewpoint. While the film itself has spared no expense to dazzle and make hopefully make a few bucks from audiences around the holidays, Wonka also shows empathy for an audience that might be siding with a lot of the character’s around Willy’s periphery. It’s a film about someone trying to carve out a joyful place in a world that’s hurting and largely unjust.

Wonkas is brought together nicely by the efforts of Chalamet and Lane, who prove to be a formidable comedic and dramatic tandem. As the titular candyman, Chalamet brings charisma, warmth, and a gift of gab. He knows his way around the turn of a phrase, shows off his still largely untapped comedic abilities, and effortlessly bounces and sings his way through any number of physically and vocally demanding set pieces without looking like he’s even broken a sweat; a perfect encapsulation of a person like Willy Wonka who’s able to make the impossible seem effortless. And his scenes opposite Lane’s curious, but cautious orphan allow Chalamet to show a bit more vulnerability and depth.

The film also introduces the little people known as Oompa Loompas, represented by Hugh Grant as a posh chocolate thief on the outs with his tribe. Some people might find that an adorable callback, but for me, it might be the least interesting thing in the film. Still, he deserves credit for putting forward just as much of a comedic effort as the rest of the film’s stacked cast, which includes some of King and Grant’s other Paddington co-stars, like Tom Davis (as a brute smitten with Colman’s evil stooge), Sally Hawkins (glowing with warmth in flashbacks as Willy’s beloved mother), and Farnaby (who continues a bit of a running joke from some of their previous collaborations with a memorable role here). While Wonka has more going on plot-wise than would be advisable, but it’s certainly not a film with any insignificant roles for the cast to sink their teeth into.

Wonka is a sugar rush without the headache one might associated with such kinetic, kiddie oriented fare. It’s a theme park attraction made with love, care, and attention that tries to offer up some sort of nutritional value in the form of easily gleaned messages. All it takes for Wonka to work on a critical or entertainment level is an open heart and mind. Pound for pound, Wonka is the most decadent treat of the holiday moviegoing season.

Wonka is now playing in theatres everywhere.

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