Wonka only works as a prequel to 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory if we’ve suffered collective amnesia. Remember how much of the original film is dedicated to the inflicting of Old Testament-style punishments on ungrateful children? Or the outré foxiness of Gene Wilder’s central performance? This new Wonka – and its star Timothée Chalamet – certainly doesn’t retain that. Nor does the film incorporate any of the morbid psychedelia of the Wilder movie’s tunnel scene, which most people forget includes a shot of a chicken being decapitated.
Yet, Wonka’s inability to imitate its predecessor doesn’t feel like a failure when you consider this: it’s not so much a prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as it is a companion piece to director Paul King’s two Paddington movies. Much like those genteel, ursine escapades – released in 2014 and 2017, respectively – Wonka is old-fashioned, cinematic magic writ large. It whips up wit, warmth, and the beloved memories of classics past: there’s a big dollop of Mary Poppins here, a little Matilda, some Oliver!, and, then, unexpectedly, a pinch of Les Misérables.
Perhaps that last one wasn’t intentional. But what else are we meant to think when King, and his co-writer Simon Farnaby, depict the young Willy (Chalamet) as a man down on his luck and obsessively pursued by the chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key), who adopts an orphaned girl (Calah Lane’s Noodle) previously under the guardianship of two unscrupulous innkeepers (played by Olivia Colman and Tom Davis)?
And while there are strictly no barricades in Wonka, the film’s musical credentials happily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the West End. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” has its moment in the sun, and the original numbers by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon charm on their own terms. Arch-villains the Chocolate Cartel, a trio of haughty businessmen played perfectly by Paterson Joseph, Mathew Baynton, and Matt Lucas, even go full Folies Bergère at one point.
Chalamet, it’s clear, possesses the kind of all-round star power capable of shouldering Wonka’s whimsy. He can certainly dance and sing as well as he needs to – but, most importantly, he has the kind of raw talent that can carry a film like this right over the sentimental finishing line, much like Ben Whishaw’s done by voicing Paddington. Sally Hawkins, also from the Paddington movies, plays Wonka’s dearly departed mother, seen in flashback, and when the two briefly combine, they tweeze the tears right out of the audience’s eyes.
That said, Chalamet may have been slightly miscast here. He reads as more of a Newsie than a Wonka, as an affable and pretty normal guy – it’s what made him such an appealing cannibal in last year’s Bones and All. When he says things like, “Absolutely insane!”, and twists his head like a broken puppet, it’s a little harder to buy.
In fact, it’s the film’s occasional attempts to link back to Roald Dahl’s story that poke small holes in all this jubilation. Like Augustus Gloop, fatness is equated with gluttony for the purpose of a creaky, unfunny punchline. Hugh Grant doing a little song and dance fared very well for Paddington 2, and here he has the bonus of being daubed in orange for the role of an Oompa-Loompa. But the characters bring with them all the same problems: the conflicted feelings within the dwarfism community and its colonialist implications, which the film only partially smoothes over with a retrofitted backstory. If you can squint your eyes slightly and pretend that Wonka isn’t really a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory prequel, though, you’re in for the sweetest of delicacies.
Dir: Paul King. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant. PG, 116 minutes.
‘Wonka’ is in cinemas from 8 December
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