Timothée Chalamet shines as the master chocolatier in the musical of his younger years.
When it was first announced, I groaned. Do we really need a prequel to explain Willy Wonka’s backstory?
When Timothée Chalamet was revealed as the lead, I groaned again. It felt a misstep for a star who’s picked work excellently so far.
When the trailer was released, I was three for three. It looked like a twee approach with Chalamet’s impression ringing hollow.
Then I saw it. And I couldn’t help but smile the entire way through.
Wonka is an absolute joy of a film that’s perfect for the Christmas season. Taking place decades before the action of the Roald Dahl books and films the character is from, a young Willy Wonka (Chalamet) arrives in a homogenous blend of all European cities with one dream in mind: to become a world famous chocolatier at the Galeries Gourmet.
Things go wrong quickly for the aspirational diabetic as he signs himself into indentured servitude to two grotesque ne’er-do-well landlords (played with Dickensian aplomb by Olivia Colman and Tom Davis). It gets even worse when Wonka has his sweet dreams trampled on with news of the Galeries Gourmet’s sinister undercurrent. It is run by a cartel of chocolatiers (Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, and Mathew Baynton) who are paying off the church, led by a corrupt Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson), and the police chief (Keegan-Michael Key).
Wonka befriends his fellow labourers and leads a mini-chocolatey revolt. He seizes the coco-beans of production as he and his orphan friend Noodle (a brilliant Calah Lane), run around town convincing the locals of Wonka’s superior quality treats.
It might all sound a bit saccharine, but there are a few things to mention that were absent from the film’s promotional material. The first is the absolutely stacked cast. Alongside the acting and comic royalty already noted here, there are cameos from Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Simon Farnaby, Isy Suttie, Phil Wang and Charlotte Ritchie.
Then there’s the fact it’s a musical. Much like the upcoming Mean Girls remake, the trailer and posters seem at pains to hide the fact these movies are coming with full songbooks. Is this a marketing tactic I’m unaware of? When I first found out Wonka was a surreptitious musical, I assumed it was because the studio wasn’t confident in the soundtrack.
The songs were written by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and composer Joby Talbot and while there aren’t necessarily many standouts, the musical numbers themselves are perfect vehicles for the narrative. Although the opening three notes of ‘Pure Imagination’ haunt many moments and remind you of how good the songs could have been.
Finally, there’s who had actually made the film. Directed by Paul King, who co-wrote with Farnaby, I should have realised Wonka was in safe hands. King is responsible for odd-ball comedy shows ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’ and ‘The Mighty Boosh’, as well as the wholesome and spellbindingly wonderful Paddington films. King also made the severely underrated Bunny and the Bull. Please go watch it, it’s wonderful and no one has ever heard of it.
As a result, King’s direction puts oodles of charm on screen. The musical numbers are staged with exuberance, while the plot plays out with the skill of a high-quality Belgian confectioner – delicately balanced sweet and savoury notes all packaged with an elaborate yet tasteful bow.
Chalamet also shines. If in the trailer he looked uncomfortable handling the oddness of the character, in the full film he brandishes the chocolatier’s wicked grin and infuses it with sincere magical charm. He doesn’t – and neither does the film – bring much of the darkness that made Gene Wilder so wonderful in the role, but that was a different performance for a different film.
Wonka is an attempt at creating a new fairytale chapter for the character. It may round out the edges of the original, but it heaps on charm and creates its own brand new tale that brims with creativity. This film isn’t a classic of cinema, but maybe is a classic of child-friendly Christmas time. It takes all of the mystical elements that make Dahl’s original sparkle and crafts a whole new story.
Wonka is out now in cinemas.