Directed by Paul King.
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Matt Lucas, Jim Carter, Rakhee Thakrar, Natasha Rothwell, Rich Fulcher, Tom Davis, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Simon Farnaby, Paterson Joseph, Colin O’Brien, Ellie White, Mathew Baynton, Luan Gallagher, Rufus Jones, Justin Edwards, and Freya Parker.
Willy Wonka – chock-full of ideas and determined to change the world one delectable bite at a time – is proof that the best things in life begin with a dream, and if you’re lucky enough to meet Willy Wonka, anything is possible.
A Paul King confection, Wonka is cut from the same cloth as the filmmaker’s heartwarming odes to kindness in his Paddington movies. Co-writing the screenplay alongside Simon Farnaby (previously collaborating on Paddington 2) based on Roald Dahl’s characters, there is real imagination, personality, humor, and heart bursting in this vibrant delight. It’s enough to make one forget that the concept of a Willy Wonka origin story is wholly unnecessary because, when it comes down to it, what’s here is charming.
Timothée Chalamet spiritedly steps into the role of the eponymous chocolatier, and within the opening moments, there is a clear understanding of why he would be swayed to tackle a role famously played by Gene Wilder and then again more infamously taken up by Johnny Depp. If the Paddington movies are moving, sweet pleas for kindness in a world that grows more uncertain, nasty, and destructive by the day, Wonka is a cry for people to not give up on their dreams, directed with that same gentle touch mixed with whimsical British humor.
Set in a fantastical recreation of 1930s London, Wonka follows the titular candyman inventor arriving via boat, having left behind his home to reach the Galeries Gourmet, a hotspot for selling chocolate that his recently deceased mom (Sally Hawkins) told him about, as concocting chocolates was the primary source of their bonding. His dream is to set up his own chocolate store, having traveled the world to harvest ingredients both delicate and bizarre to create candies that will never be forgotten, both for their delectable taste and unusual aftereffects such as floating in the air (which is no surprise for anyone familiar with the source material.)
Unfortunately for Willy Wonka, almost nothing goes right upon his arrival. The character shares a similar naivety to Paddington, blindly believing everyone in the world is good-intentioned and honest. Without a place to live and having settled on sleeping on a bench for the night before optimistically making his fortune from selling chocolate, bypassed Prodnose (Matt Lucas) stumbles across Willy Wonka and invites him to stay at an inn suspiciously run by Olivia Colman’s Mrs. Scrubbit, where the two bury in legally binding small print that once you commit to renting a room for a single silver sovereign, for a night, you can never leave and become indebted to working in the in and paying off a sum 10,000 times that number. Despite orphan Noodle (Calah Lane) doing her best to warn Willy Wonka about the innkeeper’s malicious intent discreetly, he signs the contract anyway, partially because he can’t read and assumes nothing is out of the ordinary in the documentation.
To Willy Wonka, this is just a minor inconvenience, who hatches a plan with the endearing Noodle (after sharing some chocolate with her, of course) to sneak him out during the day at laundry time when they will have distracted Mrs. Scrubbit and Prodnose in a way I won’t spoil, but will say one that becomes an amusing and playfully adorable dynamic between them. The only problem is a committee within the Galeries Gourmet headed up by Paterson Joseph’s vile Slugworth. It essentially functions as the Goodfellas of the chocolate industry, hell-bent on not letting anyone intrude into their space and market share while also paying off a corrupt chief of police with a sweet tooth hilariously played by Keegan-Michael Key (increasingly put through elaborate makeup effects and bodysuits the larger he becomes throughout the movie, which is funny and appropriately sells how addicted to chocolate he is.)
Rather creatively, the crime extends all the way to the basement of a cathedral with a priest (Rowan Atkinson) and hundreds of chocolate-loving monks in on the racket, as they all come together to ensure Willy Wonka’s treats and attempt to open a store are squashed. Their hasty dedication to this comes down to the simple fact that even they admit his chocolates are the best they’ve ever tasted.
Speaking of stores, there is a point in the film where Willy Wonka does open his, which is pleasantly oozing with imagination (a vital ingredient of the source material that has been taken to heart here), with chocolate trees and other marvelous, dazzlingly colorful tasty-looking creations that also appear to be accomplished practically, containing little reliance on CGI. One sequence sees characters stuck inside a pool of chocolate, which is again achieved by doing it for real, or at the very least, covering the actors in a substance, adding a layer of immersion to the experience.
As a musical, Wonka also works, with music by Joby Talbot and songs by The Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hammon, partly because they are slower tunes playing to the strength of Timothée Chalamet’s soothing vocals. That’s not to say there aren’t any upbeat song and dance numbers (there is a catchy one about cleaning the inn), but that the songwriters understand the material and why songs from the original film became so beloved. Each musical number is dynamic and directed with a touch of whimsy, with shots tightly edited together.
Hugh Grant also appears as an Oompa-Loompa, as part of the origin story shows how the eventual workers of Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory got into business with one another. It’s a nice sentiment that allows a reason to include other beloved characters from the property, but the CGI is distractingly hideous, and there is also the feeling that this film would get by fine without incorporating one of them. There are also one or two strange subplots, such as a detour to a zoo to milk a giraffe as an ingredient.
The heart of the story comes from the connection between Willy Wonka and Noodle, as she teaches him how to read while he instills into her never to give up hope of finding her family. There is a running theme the characters are pushing back against in that the greedy upper class always comes out on top over the less fortunate (including a character who amusingly gags upon someone merely mentioning poor people), and they can still accomplish their dreams even when at a disadvantage. These elements give the delightful Wonka a tender, emotional purpose, working in tandem with the visual wonderment on display.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com