In the seemingly endless outpour of reboots, prequels, and sequels based on existing IP, there is the occasional film that both honors its source material, and manages to feel fresh and exciting. Out of all the films that came out this year, I wouldn't have guessed that Wonka, a prequel to the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, would be one of them. But to my surprise, it feels well in line with the original film and the sensibilities of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while also adding its own flair. In retrospect, I should have known better than to doubt director Paul King, who is responsible for the Paddington movies, as he has a knack for whimsy and a distinct style that lends itself to making a Wonka movie. While there are some issues with the film, mainly in its musical numbers, Wonka manages to defy expectations, and is a fun, candy-coated origin story for one of the most iconic characters in film and literature, and is such a nice little surprise in general.
Young chocolatier Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives in a seaside European town, with dreams and aspirations of opening his own chocolate shop and making delicious confectionary delights for the local citizens. However, he soon finds that there are numerous obstacles in his way, from a greedy landlady who nickels and dimes him, to a powerful chocolate cartel, to a retribution-seeking Oompa Loompa. Despite the tough road ahead of him, Wonka keeps his head held high, and does everything he can to make his chocolate dreams come true.
For those who have seen Paul King's Paddington films, watching this film really seems like the next logical step for him, as he is taking on yet another iconic children's book character, but at a larger scale. King has a light, warmhearted, sensibility that complements the larger setpieces that are featured in much of his films. This makes him an excellent candidate to direct a Roald Dahl (or Roald Dahl-adjacent in this case) project, as he has a similar sense of humor, and has a whimsical energy that is front and center in his work. But King doesn't just try to imitate Dahl or the 1971 film here, but does more of his own thing while still paying homage to both of them. It is clear that King is more interested in the film's storytelling than in making something that rests on cheap references to the original source material. There are nods to the 1971 film throughout, but much of it is devoted to just showing us Wonka's beginnings and how he became the successful chocolatier we all know and love. This helps the film tremendously, as it feels more original than I would have guessed, and is able to expand nicely on what its predecessors have already established.
One of my biggest takeaways from Paddington 2 was that Paul King should consider directing a musical in the future, as that film features a rousing musical number that truly stuck with me. Upon finding out that Wonka is a musical, I was a little skeptical, but extremely curious to see how King would handle it. As it turns out, he does a rather great job, and lives up to his potential in this arena. The musical numbers have an old-fashioned feel at some moments, but there is also a more modern take in a couple of them that King pulls off. The look of the numbers is so solid, which makes the songs themself a bit disappointing. The original songs are a bit lackluster, as they don't come close to the instantly memorable music of the original film. The songs are average at best, and considering that music is such an important part of the previous Wonka adaptations, it is a bit of a let-down.
I have to give credit to King and co-writer Simon Farnaby, however, as I appreciate the direction they take with the film's overall narrative. Much like one of Wonka's confectionary creations, it takes a familiar concept and adds a fun new spin on it. The film has the backbone of a rags-to-riches origin story, but has some eccentricity to it that keeps things interesting. You can't say that this film is boring, as it has a strong momentum and fun details that allowed the film to hold my attention the entire time. In addition to King's stylistic vision, the film excels at bringing a level of kookiness to the surface that is almost irresistable, and is quite alluring. The strangeness of the situations that Wonka finds himself in, especially with the Chocolate Cartel and the boarding house he stays in, are so well-scripted and are brought to life beautifully. The former especially is fascinating as I don't know how anyone could have thought of this, let alone execute it as well as the film does. I will say that there is a detail that did leave a sour taste in my mouth, as there is a running gag where the character played by Keegan-Michael Key gains more and more weight over the course of the film, which requires him to wear a fat suit. It feels rather mean-spirited, which sticks out from the otherwise pleasantness that the film has, and also feels lazy and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. It's an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise decent script, but it thankfully doesn't take away from the film too much.
Considering that Gene Wilder's take on Willy Wonka is considered to be the gold standard when it comes to the character, it leaves anyone else who has taken on the role with some big shoes to fill. The casting of Timothée Chalamet as Wonka gave me a bit of pause, as I wasn't sure that he would bring the proper zaniness that the role demands. While I do wish he would have gone a bit further with the character's weirder side, I have to admit that he does a good job overall. He has more of a wide-eyed quality that works for a young version of Wonka, while also including shades of the Wilder version of the character in certain moments. Chalamet is quite game here, and is best when he's playing up the showman persona of Wonka, and he definitely does a better job in the role overall than I was expecting.
The supporting cast is quite stacked, with a mix of British character actors and American comedians making up the bulk of it. I was especially impressed by Paterson Joseph, who plays Arthur Slugworth, the head of the Chocolate Cartel. I have been a fan of Joseph ever since I first saw him in the British sitcom Peep Show, and he is so charismatic and wonderfully villainous in this role. He is so in tune with the tone of the film, and knocks out every scene he's in. The actors who play the fellow residents of the boarding house that Wonka lives in are also good, as Jim Carter, Natasha Rothwell, Rich Fulcher, and Rakhee Thakrar make a surprisingly good team, and play off of Chalamet quite well. Hugh Grant is memorable as Lofty, an Oompa Loompa who pesters Wonka throughout the film, but you can feel a sense of contempt in his performance that shouldn't work for the character, but this ends up enhancing the role somewhat.
However, the true standouts in the supporting cast are Olivia Colman and Calah Lane. Colman is clearly having a ball with this character, as it gives her the chance to play a more cartoonish role, which she hasn't really had the opportunity to do in a while. Colman got her start in comedy, and is very good at it, so she absolutely nails the character of Mrs. Scrubbit, the mean landlady of the boarding house where Wonka lives. It is such a fun role for her, and she is an absolute joy to watch all throughout the film. As for Lane, she quickly proves herself to be an exciting young talent, taking on the role of an orphan named Noodle who becomes Wonka's assistant. She definitely holds her own against Chalamet, and ends up being the emotional crux of the whole film. It's a lot for a young actor to shoulder, but Lane handles it like a champ, and ends up being one of the strongest elements of the whole film.
Wonka is a flawed film, especially when it comes to its musical moments, but it is a ton of fun and has so many fascinating qualities to it. I wasn't expecting much from it going into it, but it ends up being a nice little prequel to one of the most iconic films of all time. Paul King definitely does his thing with this film, making it an exciting and charming film full of whimsy and heart in a delicious candy coating. Wonka may struggle in a few places, but it works far better than I would have ever guessed as a whole, and is a such a delightful little treat of a film.