Gemma Creagh digests Wonka, the latest addition to a classic franchise.
Paul King’s Wonka builds an enchanting origin story around the iconic eccentric industrialist Willy Wonka. Originally envisioned by author Roald Dahl in his 1960s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka lived in the minds of a generation of children before Gene Wilder brought him to life in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with his standout performance. Let’s make no more mention of any subsequent strange, problematic and downright creepy incarnations of Wonka, and just flag that Wilder, and Wilder alone is a hard act to follow.
This film transports audiences to a whimsical, heightened version of old-timey London, where a young and ambitious Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives with a magic hat and a dream of opening a chocolate shop in the main shopping thoroughfare. In Wonka’s mind, he envisions grand musical numbers and a bustling confectionery empire. However, his stark reality proves harsher: penniless, Wonka finds himself destitute on cold, unforgiving streets. Wonka is approached by the simple but unscrupulous Bleecher (Tom Davis), and brought to a seemingly welcoming abode of Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). There Wonka inadvertently pens his name to a dubious contract, effectively signing over the next three decades of his life to work in her laundry. As Wonka begins his stint as an Indentured Servant, he befriends the other workers, notably the lovable orphan Noodle (Calah Lane). Wonka enlists his new friends to help escape Scrubbit’s clutches and set up his chocolate business. The Chocolate Cartel, headed up by Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) are not impressed, and use their far reaching power to thwart Wonka’s efforts at every turn.
Writing team Simon Farnaby and Paul King, under King’s direction, deliver all the same heart and wonder they brought to Paddington, but add a rich dollop of the absurd humour they were both known for in their past TV careers. Wonka is a silly, elevated adventure, every scene a visual treat fueled with whimsy. South Korean Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung crystallises his vibrant style, an impressive follow up to his standout work on Last Night in Soho.
Unfortunately the narrative is lacking depth, and does not do well when compared to the beloved ’70s classic. There are no cohesive, tangible or truthful themes under the zany antics other than a general swipe at capitalism (which is somewhat ironic given the fiscal ambitions of the two recent auditions to this franchise). As a protagonist, Wonka is too ethereal for an audience to pin down and relate to for the run time. Wonka’s newly fleshed out backstory, and Noodle’s bland orphan narrative are both egregiously low hanging fruit. Every single conflict is solved by a magic chocolate of some kind and far too much of the plot is fueled by third party coincidence.
Yet if there’s one thing Wonka gets right above all else, it’s the casting. Chalamet is charming, and brings a warm intensity to his disappointingly underwritten character. Calah Lane as Noodle is the emotional heart grounding the narrative, no easy task for such a young talent, but she manages it well. In fact, the extensive lineup of performers is a who’s who of mostly UK-based comedic actors, featuring top tier names from Rowan Atkinson to Matt Lucas to Keegan-Michael Key. Hugh Grant as the furious Lofty does a great job glossing over past problematic incarnations of Oompa Loompas. Grant’s upper middle-class whiteness and dry, entitled delivery sidesteps any prior implication of exploitation and is downright hilarious. Olivia Colman as Mrs Scrubbit embodies a cartoonishly cruel human trafficker, yet brings something strangely sweet to her weird burgeoning relationship with hired goon Bleecher.
There’s just so much to enjoy here. Wonka is fun, a chocolatey feast with flavours for the whole family.
Wonka is in cinemas 8th December 2023.