Wonka (2023, dir. Paul King)

by | Dec 9, 2023

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 116 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros

UK Release Date: 8 December 2023

WHO’S IN WONKA?

Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Matthew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, Tom Davis, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Natasha Rothwell, Rich Fulcher, Rakhee Thakrar, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Simon Farnaby, Colin O’Brien, Ellie White, Murray McArthur, Tracy Ifeachor, Isy Suttie

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Paul King (director, writer), Simon Farnaby (writer), Alexandra Derbyshire, David Heyman and Luke Kelly (producers), Joby Talbot (composer), Chung-hoon Chung (cinematographer), Mark Everson (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Young chocolatier Willy Wonka (Chalamet) makes a name for himself…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON WONKA?

The 1971 family film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – is a beloved classic for many, myself included, but there was one thing about it that I never fully understood, even as a kid: that title, which swaps Charlie for Willy Wonka. Sure, Gene Wilder’s eccentric chocolatier is central to the entire thing, but it’s still Charlie’s story, and he’s in it far more than Wonka is, so surely it’s his adventure in the chocolate factory, and not the guy who runs it? It’s something that even the 2005 Tim Burton version got right, although when it comes to Wonka himself Johnny Depp couldn’t even hold a candle to Wilder with his just plain weird interpretation of the character.

I guess that director and co-writer Paul King, fresh off the two Paddington movies, somehow caught wind of my childhood confusion, and has now granted Wonka his own adventure where not only is his name firmly in the title (in fact, it’s the whole title), but his lovable spirit seeps all the way through a film that’s as delightful and whimsical as he is.

The film begins as a young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives in town with big dreams of opening his own chocolate store, where he plans to sell his wacky confectionary to the masses for affordable prices. However, he quickly runs afoul of the local Chocolate Cartel, comprised of scheming chocolatiers Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton) who utilise their power, including bribing the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and the local priest Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson), to stamp out Wonka for good. What’s more, the young man winds up in a tricky situation with his landlady Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), who forces him and other guests to work in her laundry room until his debts are paid in twenty-seven years’ time. Nonetheless, Wonka never gives up on his dream, and with the help of young orphan Noodle (Calah Lane) he sets out to bring his chocolate to the masses, even if it means risking the wrath of the Chocolate Cartel whenever he does.

Those expecting Wonka to be on the same level of warm-heartedness as King’s Paddington movies will get most of that here, but with added hints of that signature Roald Dahl nastiness that the author often inserts into his work. One of the things that King and co-writer Simon Farnaby manage to do quite well here is combine their style of wholesome storytelling (along with their quirky but gentle sense of humour) with the author’s unflinching appetite for family-friendly cruelty. For instance, villainous characters such as Colman’s Mrs. Scrubbit or the Chocolate Cartel themselves often feel as though they’d be right at home in Dahl’s gallery of loathsome antagonists like Miss Trunchbull from Matilda or the titular figures of The Twits, especially as they commit various crimes where not even young children are safe from their wrath. Although at times the cruelty can get in the way of it being as ultimately endearing as the Paddington movies, Wonka delicately straddles that line and pays loving tribute to the refreshingly unfiltered author (which is quite something, since Dahl famously hated the 1971 film, which this one is very much a prequel to).

King also heavily embraces the fact that Wonka is also a musical, and a pleasingly old-fashioned one at that. It doesn’t fall into the trap of most movie musicals nowadays where every major number is written, performed and mixed like it’s a pop song (presumably to compete with the popularity of The Greatest Showman and its heavily poppy soundtrack), with songwriter Neil Hannon keeping his tunes carefully confined to the classic method of the songs actually being used to further the plot and character development, rather than being there for the sake of it. It’s similar to what the Sherman Brothers often did with classic family musicals like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which King keenly replicates with a similar amount of whimsy and passion in the choreography, which perfectly complements the peculiar and heart-warming nature of the songs themselves.

Most importantly, King creates a genuinely endearing story and set of characters who are very easy to warm to and are fun enough to be around, even when sometimes they make some ill-judged decisions to further the plot. There are plentiful supporting turns by the likes of Calah Lane, who has a very lovable energy as the titular character’s young assistant, as well as Hugh Grant in his much-publicised turn as an Oompa-Loompa, who isn’t on-screen for that long but just about steals every scene he’s in with that typical not-giving-a-stuff energy he’s given in recent years which has somehow made him more lovable (as a side note, the recent bombshell that Grant apparently despised doing the motion-capture work for his CGI character does make his performance all the more amusing, because you can sense the disdain he has for it in nearly every delivery of dialogue, even the traditional Oompa-Loompa song-and-dance number that he performs). As for Wonka himself, Chalamet is certainly taking cues from Gene Wilder’s iconic turn as the character, but he inserts some theatre-kid energy into the role to make it his own, in a somewhat self-aware turn that takes a little bit of time to get used to, though by then the actor has done enough to largely win you over with his charming naivety and optimistic screen presence.

Any issues are relatively minor but worth mentioning anyway, one of them being that the plot can be quite tricky to wrap one’s head around, even in this rather fantastical setting where just about anything can, and most likely will, happen. Then, there are times when the film takes some cheap shots at a supporting character’s growing body size, which is certainly in keeping with Dahl’s style of schadenfreude but in an otherwise heartfelt and caring narrative feels uncharacteristically mean.

Other than that, Wonka is certain to delight families everywhere with its charm and old-fashioned sensibility, which just like one of the title character’s famous gobstoppers creates a sense of joy and wonder that is everlasting.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Wonka is a largely delightful family musical that combines director and co-writer Paul King’s heartfelt storytelling with the unfiltered prose of Roald Dahl, with plentiful songs and supporting performances led by Timothée Chalamet’s endearing young chocolatier.

Four of of five stars

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