Just how did Willy Wonka come to establish his chocolate factory? Nevermind that there’s a genuine sequel to Roald Dahl‘s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that has never been filmed, here’s the prequel that you never knew you wanted to show you how the chocolate is really made.
Wonka is bright and cheery, impressively designed, well-performed and occasionally very funny, and a lot of its charm is likely thanks to writer-director Paul King, who previously scored big with two infectiously-good Paddington movies. But it just doesn’t capture the magic of Dahl’s original story that even Tim Burton‘s overindulgent 2005 version managed to ride the coattails of.
Still there’s enough to like in Wonka to warrant a trip to the cinema this holiday season, even if this one isn’t destined to become a classic. Timothée Chalamet is impressively good-natured as the titular character, played with a childlike innocence that strikes a midpoint between Gene Wilder’s cynical malice and Johnny Depp‘s Jacko weirdness.
Willy Wonka traveled the world for more than a decade to come up with the perfect ingredients for his magical chocolates, but nevermind all that backstory: Wonka kicks off with Willy fresh off the boat in an unnamed European locale with 10 silver sovereigns in his pocket and a hatful of dreams as he looks to set up shop in a gourmet passage.
But Wonka’s gravity-defying delights pose a threat to the evil “chocolate mafia”: chocolatiers Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), and Prodnose (Matt Lucas), who sell watered-down sweets to the city while keeping a growing reserve of the good stuff locked up in an underground vault beneath the local cathedral.
These guys are Wonka‘s antagonists, but also provide the film with some comic highlights – especially when coupled with the chocoholic Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) who does their bidding (and amusingly grows in girth throughout the film) and the befuddled Father (Rowan Atkinson) who guards their flowing bounty.
Willy Wonka, meanwhile, seems to have lost himself in a Dickens storyline, trapped into decades of servitude at the local inn by the devious Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her hulking cohort Bleacher (Tom Davis). There, he makes good with fellow servant Noodle (Calah Lane) and a cast of characters that will help him break out… and, finally, start that chocolate factory.
This is all silly stuff, but not in the way that Dahl’s original novel or its two previous film adaptations were. The magical elements of those works served allegorical purposes that played up childhood fantasy as an almost frightening cautionary tale, but the eye-popping effects of Wonka are all just innocuous window dressing.
Still, Wonka looks fantastic, and the outdoor sets are a wondrous amalgamation of early 20th century locales in London, Paris, and Berlin (while the characters all speak Victorian English, signage and other elements are in French and German). And the film’s red-and-white tram no. 23 might just have been inspired by its famous Prague counterpart.
Like the previous adaptations, Wonka is a musical, which adds to the airy atmosphere. But outside of a brief rendition of Oompa Loompa by Hugh Grant and a nostalgic rendition of Pure Imagination from Chalamet, none of the new songs from composer Joby Talbot really stand out.
While Wonka is more of a mixed bag than a satisfying box of chocolates, there’s plenty to like for both fans of the original story and new converts. Especially for younger audiences, this one is likely to be a satisfyingly sweet hit over the holiday season.