When the trailer for Wonka was first released, reactions were, at best, dubious. Fondness for the old Gene Wilder interpretation and prequel/sequel fatigue seemed to give people much to complain about online.
Why had Timothee Chalamet, indie darling and superstar on the rise, decided to make a kid’s film about a character that’s already been played twice on screen?
The answer, it seems, had a lot to do with Paul King.
King is the director of the Paddington films and, alongside Horrible Histories’ Simon Farnaby (of Caligula fame), wrote the screenplay for Paddington 2. The latter had, at one point, achieved a 100% perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and Chalamet himself called it a “truly nearly perfect film”.
It has since achieved a near cult-like status, receiving endless praise from celebrity fans and featuring memorably in the 2022 Nick Cage film The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. So, whilst the YouTube comment section was sceptical, critically, there was a lot of expectation hanging on King and Farnaby’s newest film.
Wonka explores the professional beginnings of a young Willy Wonka, a whimsical and ambitious man (played by Timothee Chalamet) trying to make it as a chocolatier. Armed with nothing but a hatful of chocolate and a bucketload of dreams, Willy must face up against the “chocolate cartel” (consisting primarily of Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton), who have monopolised the chocolate market and refuse to let any newcomers in.
After being locked into a contract by the devious Mrs Scrubbit (played with great glee by Olivia Colman), Willy must work with Scrubbit’s other entrapped workers, including the resourceful orphan Noddle (played by Calah Lane), to sell Wonka’s chocolate to the masses and buy their way to a better future.
A quirky cast of characters including Keegan-Michael Key’s corrupt Chief of Police (sporting uncomfortable fat jokes that feel very Dahl, but not very 2023) and Hugh Grant’s scene-stealing Oompa Loompa bring further challenges to Wonka and Co.’s chocolate-making endeavours.
True to the spirit of “pure imagination”, the film is as fantastical as it is full of heart. Best described as Paddington meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets every Charles Dickens character you never hope to meet, its sets are beautiful and its cast is something to make any casting director proud. It is also consistently funny, with Rowan Atkinson’s chocolate-obsessed priest and Simon Farnaby’s lovelorn security guard proving to be highlights. The film is also, it should be noted, a stealth musical.
Yes, that’s right. Wonka has joined 2024’s Mean Girls in the grand tradition of concealing the fact that it’s a musical in its trailer. Presumably, this has been done because, following on from 2021’s Dear Evan Hansen and In the Heights, there seems to be a lack of appetite among moviegoers for musicals. Nevertheless, do not be fooled, there are songs in Wonka and they shouldn’t be shouty enough to put anyone off.
For all those students looking to escape Oxford for the winter vacation and enjoy a bit of whimsy in Wonka, you should also probably be warned. The latter half of the film will see you overwhelmed by images of the Bridge of Sighs and the Rad Cam, gleaming with all their loaded, potentially stress-filled associations. For a film that’s meant to be set in a magical non-descript location, there’s really no escaping those limestone streets.
Overall, Wonka is a fun, festive treat full of a sweetness that somehow never gets too sickly. It is likely to be enjoyed by all members of the family, and is a beautifully made, if, at times, slightly empty prequel.
Now, is it a patch on Paddington 2? Of course not.
But as Pedro Pascal’s character said in a review of it to Nicholas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent:
“I cried through the entire thing. It made me want to be a better man.”