'Wonka' returns with more music, less menace
Before there was Elf on a Shelf, looking down on children to punish the bad and reward the good, there was Willy Wonka. In the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and in the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wonka brings five children on a tour of his candy factory. Four of them are deemed bad (one is spoiled, one watches too much television, one is fat, one ... chews gum?) and find themselves ejected from the factory in humiliating ways. Only the good boy, Charlie, remains to collect his reward.
Roald Dahl, who wrote both the novel and the screenplay of the 1971 film, makes this the kind of "if you're not good, giants will eat you; if you are good, you can have candy" story that has been used to scare kids straight for ages. In the new musical film Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet as the iconic candyman, the ominous rumble behind the story is removed in favor of a colorful telling of how Willy Wonka, who came to the big city with nothing as a young man, struck it rich in the sweets business by dreaming his big dreams and defeating his enemies.
Director Paul King, who wrote the screenplay with Simon Farnaby, has some serious chops in this general arena of fantastical children's stories, based on the successes (both critical and commercial) of the Paddington movies. The tone of this feels similar: whimsical and energetic, with a tiny (tiny) drip of acid here and there to try to cut the sweetness.
This is not Gene Wilder's reclusive, unsettling Willy Wonka, happy to delight you with candy or flush you down a pipe. Chalamet's Willy Wonka is an open-hearted kid (his age is unspecified, but it could easily be anywhere between, say, 16 and 28) who wants to share chocolates with the world and fill the void left by the loss of his mother. But just as he's about to seek his fortune, he's tricked into long-term indentured servitude in the grim Dickensian laundry service run by Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) and her henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis). In her dingy dungeon, Willy meets her other prisoners: accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), experienced telephone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher), and young Noodle (Calah Lane), who has been with Mrs. Scrubitt since she was found in the laundry chute as a baby.
Willy, already a magician who can create chocolates that enchant, just wants to sell them to the world, but first, he'll have to escape Mrs. Scrubitt. On top of that, it turns out there's a cartel made up of three devious chocolatiers (Paterson Joseph, Matthew Baynton and Matt Lucas) who will stop at nothing to prevent Willy from establishing himself as competition, and they have the help of the local corrupt police chief (Keegan-Michael Key). And eight-inch-high, orange-faced, green-haired Hugh Grant plays the one Oompa-Loompa we see. While he fires off a few terrifically dry lines during his antagonistic push-and-pull with Willy, the story doesn't really need him.
The performances in Wonka are well-suited to its purpose. Chalamet is not a great singer, he is a good singer who, refreshingly, sings like a young dreamer with a nice voice and not like a pop star. He fully commits to Willy's sunny, indefatigable cheer, and he manages the bigger, broader dialogue about dreams and magic with the confidence it needs to seem unforced. Colman has the time of her life as Scrubitt, bringing notes of Miss Hannigan from Annie and every other grimy menace to children. And this will make a lovely introduction to Calah Lane for those who haven't seen her before; Noodle and Willy's relationship is the most resonant in the movie (aside from his memories of his mother, played by Sally Hawkins).
The production design, as perhaps you'd expect, is colorful and playful when it should be, and King stages some fine musical numbers. While the songs are not so memorable that everyone will sing them on the way out of the theater, they're catchy and appealing in the moment, and a lot of parents will likely hear them over and over (and over).
At its core, Wonka is an adventure about a young man who needs his friends to help him overcome a series of obstacles and make his dreams come true, so that he can help them have theirs in return.
This is an entertaining, upbeat, imaginative film, even if it doesn't feel much like Willy Wonka. King came up with this story himself, and there's none of the "you better be good for goodness' sake" message of the original story. Rather than focusing on the moral worthiness of children, it focuses on the need for connection and wonder that adults and kids share. At its core, Wonka is an adventure about a young man who needs his friends to help him overcome a series of obstacles and make his dreams come true, so that he can help them have theirs in return. A couple of the musical numbers do have the over-the-top fantasy elements you might associate with what will later be Willy's factory, and while most of the songs are new, Wonka borrows a couple of the 1971 film's best-remembered musical moments.
The question, ultimately, is this: Without more of an undercurrent of menace than this, does a story have any connection to Roald Dahl? To Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? It is concerning, in fact, to think of this as young Willy Wonka. If this character played by Chalamet later turned into the one played by Wilder — who impassively watches as a child apparently drowns — something very bad has happened in the interim. But what seems to go unsaid in some hand-wringing about reimaginings of beloved characters is that that ominous Gene Wilder performance still exists for anyone who prefers it. Nothing is taken away by a different — but not cynical — approach. This is King's story, borrowing the idea of an eccentric candy mogul for a new purpose. Menace will always be available; it's no sin to look through a more optimistic lens as well.
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