The original 1971 Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory was easily one of the best family films of its era with the earnest Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) winner of the Golden Ticket and a lot more and a wonderful Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, the eccentric owner of the best chocolate and candy factory in the world. One of Wilder’s very best roles, it’s a film that’s simultaneously a bit dark, silly, funny, and sweet, with one of the best endings in family cinema history.
Then Tim Burton came along and in 2005 gave us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a grim and creepy Johnny Depp as Wonka and young Freddie Highmore as the rather bewildered Charlie Bucket. It was weird and twisted (with a paltry 51% Rotten Tomatoes audience score), an example of how while Burton and Depp have done lots of work together, sometimes it’s just a misfire from the first scene.
But who was Wonka and how did this peculiar fellow end up inventing all these marvelous sweets and running the most unusual and fantastical chocolate and candy factory in the world? Burton offered a half-baked (pun intended) backstory, while the original sidestepped the question entirely. Enter director Paul King with a new film focused on Willy Wonka’s backstory: Wonka.
As befitting the original, Wonka is a musical with plenty of fun dance numbers. The titular role is played by the terrific Timothée Chalamet and, of course, there’s no Charlie Bucket because the Golden Ticket and that story are many years into the future. Instead, we learn that young Wonka is an orphan who learned the secret of chocolate making from his beloved mother. Young Willy wanted to be a magician but eventually decided to study chocolate making instead, to the exclusion of any other practical skill or knowledge. Turns out that he’s astonishingly good, able to make confections that are magical and fantastic.
He’s also a bit naive about the ways of the Big City, where his dream of opening a chocolate shop is a direct threat to famous chocolatiers Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton). Soon enough he’s working at a laundry sweatshop run by the nefarious Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) with her pal Bleacher (Tom Davis).
All is not lost as Wonka meets his new pals Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), and Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). Wonka’s got his posse and he’s got a plan. In fact, he has quite a few plans to escape his inadvertent servitude and open up a chocolate shop, all involving him creating extraordinary chocolates and having just a bit of luck.
There’s a good story at the heart of Wonka, but more importantly, there’s a visually sumptuous journey with wonderful sets, delightful dance numbers, and endless whimsy and magic to surprise audiences. This is coupled with lots of sight gags and funny lines that had the audience laughing, giggling, and even clapping at a few points. This is almost Hollywood meets Bollywood and it’s a throwback to an earlier era where films were intended to be highly entertaining rather than weighed down with ponderous messages.
Calah Lane was an endearing female lead as the young orphan Noodle, but her performance was all over the place, at some points earnest and emotive and at other times not much better than a novice thespian. By contrast, Chalamet delivers a splendid performance as a dreamy, earnest young Willy Wonka who has his head so high in the clouds that he keeps tripping over the most obvious things, a trait that seems entirely consistent with Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the older Wonka in the original film.
Wonka is one of those rare modern movies that you’ll leave with a smile on your face. From Hugh Grant as a hilarious Oompa-Loompa with a backstory to the many delightful cameos and surprise actors in various roles (no spoilers, but I’m a big fan of the actor playing Father Julius!) to the wonderful visual effects and overall look of the movie, there’s a lot to like. Hopefully Wonka will do very well at the box office and encourage other filmmakers to produce similarly fun and uplifting content.