Producers: David Heyman, Alexandra Derbyshire and Luke Kelly Director: Paul King Screenplay: Simon Farnaby and Paul King Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Natasha Rothwell, Rich Fulcher, Rakhee Thakrar, Tom Davis and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith Distributor: Warner Bros.
Roald might not have written it, but Paul King and Simon Farnaby have tried to approximate the Dahl tone in “Wonka,” their prequel to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Doubtless the result is sweeter than Dahl would have preferred, but that’s to be expected from the makers of the “Paddington” pictures, and if it endows the movie with more charm than spikiness, that’s not entirely a bad thing; Tim Burton’s version of “Charlie” went too far in the other direction.
Charm, in fact, is the essence of the take on the young Willy Wonka by Timothée Chalamet, who captures the naiveté of the character King and Farnaby have created quite perfectly. This isn’t the jaded, manipulative Wonka of Dahl’s book, or of the film adaptations of it by Mel Stuart and Burton, but a more ebullient (and likable) fellow. Purists may object to the reimagining, wondering how Chalamet’s tender-hearted Wonka could possibly mature into the oddball one played by Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp (though with Wilder, there was a suggestion that his abstraction and shortness of temper were at least partially poses; Depp, on the other hand, was genuinely creepy, complete with a Burton-born backstory about how he’d been mistreated by his father, a dentist played by Christopher Lee.).
But if you’re willing to accept this view of an eternally hopeful, utterly honest twenty-something Willy, no one could inhabit him better. With his infectious smile, Chalamet projects inexhaustible energy; he also exhibits an agreeable if limited singing voice and considerable dance skill, both required in what is, after all, a musical with new numbers by Neil Hannon that are amiable if not memorable. (Recycling “Pure Imagination” and “Oompa Loompa” from the 1971 score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley helps, though one might regret room was not also found for “The Candy Man.”)
As noted, the Willy Wonka introduced here is a gentle, simple soul who arrives in the big city, capital of the candy world, with the dream of setting up a shop where he’ll sell the unique, scrumptious delicacies he’s perfected in seven years of global travel. Brought up to love chocolate by his late, loving mother (Sally Hawkins), he comes bearing her recipe secrets and his own, with only one lingering problem, as we will eventually learn—a strange little man called Lofty (Hugh Grant, miniaturized as an Oompa Loompa), who periodically raids Wonka’s room to carry off his confections, for what he argues are good and defensible reasons.
But Willy soon has more serious difficulties. Denuded of his modest bankroll by a series of grifts and gifts, he’s fooled into signing himself into indentured servitude by his Dickensian landlady Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her burly henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis) and made to toil in her underground laundry alongside her other duped victims—accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), telephone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar) and woebegone comic Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). They, and Scrubbit’s sweet, clever “adopted” servant Noodle (Calah Lane), prove instrumental in helping Willy outwit the “Chocolate Cabal”—Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Bayntron)—who, with the connivance of the crooked police chief (Keegan-Michael Key) and the equally corrupt cleric (Rowan Atkinson) presiding over the cathedral, its company of chocoholic monks, and a storehouse of chocolate beneath the building, scheme to prevent Wonka from plying his trade, sabotage his amazing store when it does open, and finally try to do away with him entirely. In doing so the heroic band use laundry baskets, sewer tunnels, and even a giraffe absconded from the zoo.
There are elements of the plot that one might wish had been jettisoned, or at least attenuated. Tricking Scrubbit into believing that Bleacher is a member of the Bavarian nobility, for example, is an amusing idea but overextended, and the “death by chocolate” finale is one of those cases in which bigger is not necessarily better. And the running gag about the police chief growing more and more bulbous as he scarfs down the chocolates the Cartel gives him as bribes runs out of gas—though part of the problem is simply that Key isn’t terribly funny. One might also protest that Atkinson, one of Britain’s crown jewels of slapstick, isn’t given enough to do, and that Joseph’s villainy is rather one-note.
On the other hand, there’s much to enjoy here—Chalamet to start with, but also the sympathetic, engaging Lane and Wonka’s other confederates, led by the always estimable Carter. Add to them the small (in every sense) turn by Grant, who puts his special talent for frowns and superciliousness—the very things that made his turn in “Paddington 2” so delightful—to excellent effect as the diminutive Lofty. (The only complaint about him is that in long shots the character isn’t very well realized.)
But that’s a rare defect in the effects supervised by Graham Page, which otherwise, together with Nathan Crowley’s splendidly over-the-top production design and Lindy Hemming’s colorful costumes, create a cornucopia of visual delights captured brightly in Chung-hoon Chung’s vibrant cinematography. Recognition is also due Christopher Gattelli’s sprightly choreography, especially in the exuberant ensembles that Matthew Hannam’s editing allows us to appreciate in full image by not overcutting them into bits and pieces, and Joby Talbert’s background score, which meshes well with the songs.
“Wonka” may lack that ultimate dose of magic that makes for an enduring screen classic, but in its old-fashioned way it still provides an ample supply of good cheer. And it proves that Timothée Chalamet, in addition to his proven talent for drama and comedy, is also a pretty fair song-and-dance man.