Based on the extraordinary character at the center of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl’s most iconic children’s book and one of the best-selling children’s books of all time, Wonka tells the wondrous story of how the world’s greatest inventor, magician and chocolate-maker became the beloved Willy Wonka we know today.
In 1971, Gene Wilder took us to a world of pure imagination with the brilliant Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. In 2023, Timothée Chalamet and Paddington director Paul King are aiming to do the same thing with an origin story which embraces all the magic of the original whilst indulging more of Roald Dahl’s classic tale.
Fans of both King’s Paddington films will be thrilled at how the auteur’s charm and wit melds with Dahl’s world. From the outset Wonka revels in a heightened reality filled with colourful setpieces and charming musical numbers. As with those adaptions of the beloved Peruvian bear, Wonka‘s success is also attributable to King’s incredible sense of casting. In fact, there’s very little which works to detract from the incredibly joyous experience of young Willy Wonka’s early adventure.
Much has been (and will be) written about the casting of Timothée Chalamet as a younger version of Wilder’s Wonka. Yes this film runs almost directly in to Mel Stuart’s original. A canny way of showing Wonka isn’t necessarily the beginning of a blockbuster franchise. Luckily for us, Chalamet also isn’t simply performing his best Gene Wilder impression. Dialling back the years allows Chalamet the chance to inject plenty of originality in to the role. He’s a little less frenzied but no less spirited. King has imbued his script with small easter eggs and nods to the man Wonka will become. But it’s just enough to become recognisable through Chalamet’s performance rather than caricaturing a Hollywood legend.
After a perfect, tone-setting opening number, Wonka arrives in our unnamed location to live out his dreams as a chocolatier. The location itself is a brilliant mix of soundstages and UK towns. It feels real and yet is unrecognisable as any one, well established place. But here the chocolate business is dominated by a trio of moustache twirling entrepreneurs (Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton). Wonka’s arrival upsets the applecart and the trio immediately set out to thwart his plans for chocolate triumph.
After several acts of kindness leave him out of pocket, Wonka falls in with Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), a local hotel owner, and Bleacher (Tom Davis), her bumbling sidekick. The pair fleece him for what little he has left and soon he finds himself imprisoned in the basement with an unlikely group of allies. The ensemble cast really comes in to its own with the introduction of Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher) and young orphan Noodle (Calah Lane). It’s Noodle who has the biggest impact on Wonka. The two form an incredible bond which underpins the entire narrative of the film. Whilst she teaches him to read, he teaches her the meaning of family. It’s the perfect, simple and yet effective heart which King has become known for.
King rightly stays away from romantic entanglements. Firstly because Wonka simply doesn’t have that kind of connection in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story. But also to avoid Wonka from potentially derailing itself with needless subplotting. Instead the goal is simple, to get Wonka from point A to point B and have fun doing so. To do that, King turns to songwriter Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. Hannon has created a musical world that fells not a million miles away from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s original work in 1971. Whilst I didn’t feel the songs were overly memorable, they are certainly magical in the context of watching the film. They strike the perfect tonal balance to accompany the film and will no doubt stand the test of time when listened to in isolation.
Underneath all of the magical creations beats the kind of real human heart which a film like Wonka needs. Whilst its snowy locales will capture plenty of families over the festive period. It will be the film’s incredibly joyous nature that will leave them floating out of the cinema on a candy cloud.
Wonka is pure chocolate cinema gold. Timothée Chalamet is magical as proto-Gene Wilder. His charisma is as intoxicating as an everlasting gobstopper. The whole ensemble is incredible and the songs are endearing. The perfect feel-good family Christmas cinema experience.