Nobody Wanted 'Wonka,' So It's Annoying That It's Good

Directed by Paul King

Starring Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Tom Davis, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant

Photo: Jaap Buittendijk

BY Rachel HoPublished Dec 13, 2023

It's been over 50 years since Mel Stuart and Gene Wilder delivered the best adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic and since then, there hasn't been a need for another. Audiences didn't ask for a new adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005 and we aren't asking for one in 2023. I'd go as far as to say that most people actively didn't want a new film about Willy Wonka and Charlie — so it's almost infuriating that Paul King's Wonka is actually pretty fantastic. 

In Wonka, we meet the titular chocolatier as a young man arriving in the city with a pocket full of dreams, magic and chocolate. Played by Timothée Chalamet, Wonka resigns himself to a park bench for the evening before an ol' geezer, Bleacher (Tom Davis), persuades him to spend the night at his accommodations.

The inn-cum-laundromat reveals itself to be a scam in the morning as the owner, Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), reads off a laundry list of excess fees. Light on cash, Wonka takes to the courtyard of Galeries Gourmet to sell his chocolates, much to the dismay of the resident chocolatiers, the Chocolate Cartel. With the help of his fellow duped housemates, Wonka sets about taking on the Chocolate Cartel in the hopes of paying off his and his comrades' debts, with his ultimate goal being to own a chocolate shop. 

Prior to Wonka, King was best known to international audiences as the director of the tremendous Paddington and the even more tremendous Paddington 2. Upholding this reputation, King brings an oddly grounded whimsy to Wonka that prevents the movie from going too far off the rails. There are moments of very broad humour thanks to Davis, Colman, Keegan-Michael Key and Rowan Atkinson that work well in tandem with the one-liners and jabs from the rest of the ensemble. It's with the musical components, though, that Wonka finds its make or break point.

Along with composer Joby Talbot, the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon developed the music of Wonka, mixing new pieces with classics from the 1971 film. (Yes, Chalamet does sing "Pure Imagination," and it's sweet and affecting.) The new music captures the Wonka world perfectly while sounding modern yet also suitable for the '70s, although none of these songs will quite gain classic status like the aforementioned "Pure Imagination." 

Anyone familiar with Chalamet's YouTube days won't be surprised that he's a capable singer and dancer — and anyone who has even a passing interest in film won't be surprised that he has the charisma and artistic dexterity to carry the weight of this prequel. His comedy muscles, previously only really on display in Saturday Night Live skits, are exercised well in Wonka, and he lands his beats with precise timing, although he's missing the zaniness we've come to expect of the character. Where Wilder's performance was immaculate in this respect, Chalamet never lets go enough to truly become unhinged. Given that it's a prequel, there's always the possibility that we're catching Mr. Wonka on the precipice of becoming manic, and Chalamet's simply holding back in anticipation of the sequel. 

King creates a vibrant world filled with contraptions and flights of fancy. Children will undoubtedly be in awe of the dynamic visuals and delight at watching a diverting heist go down, but it's Wonka's generation-crossing sense of joy that makes it compelling. 

Wonka brings us back to a time when adventure was at our front door and we only had to pack our imaginations — imploring us to simply look around, do what we want to do, and change what we want to change. After all, there's nothing to it.
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

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