Paddington director Paul King continues to draw from his own particular pastel Harry Potter-esque aesthetic in Wonka, a prequel of sorts to the 1971 Gene Wilder-led Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that embraces new songs, familiar coats and way more whimsy than seems humanly possible. King pulls from at least some of Roald Dahl’s original novel for kids, merges it with musical and material nods to the ‘71 film and blends it together in a silly little story about how capitalism is OK if the people doing the capitalism are kinda cute and will give you candy.
Here former video game controller mod aficionado Timothée Chalamet plays the titular young Willy Wonka, who has arrived in an unnamed city built from amalgamated European concepts after a seven-year, worldwide boat trip helped him discover all kinds of wacky things to put into candy—like yeti sweat and literal thunderstorms and bugs that, when incorporated into chocolate, make you fly briefly (you fart the bugs out later, he announces).
All Wonka wants is to build a chocolate brand to impress his dead mom (Sally Hawkins, who gets about two minutes in the film). Oh, drag, though, because a triad of mafioso confectioners named Slugworth (Aeon Flux alum Paterson Joseph), Ficklegruber (Ghosts’ Matthew Baynton) and Prodnose (Little Britain’s Matt Lucas) fear Wonka’s innovations, and thus enlist the chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key) to bring him down; they pay him in chocolate. Because he’s illiterate for some reason, Wonka, meanwhile, unwittingly enters into indentured servitude under hoteliers/washhouse proprietors Mrs. Scrubbit and Mr. Bleacher (a reverse Madame/Monsieur Thénadier from Les Miz), whereupon he meets a cadre of folks in a similar predicament. Wonka is especially enamored with young Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan who—spoiler—might have a deeper story than “is orphan.” They all help each other. Oh, also, Hugh Grant plays an Oompa-Loompa, and he majorly phones in his performance—though he’s been very public in the press about only taking the job for the money, so...
Anyway, spoiler alert? Wonka and his pals win. Duh. But it’s a mild ride full of flamingos and balloons and chocolate serving as deus ex machina and Chalamet actually comes close to one of the more nuanced performances of his career if only it didn’t seem so forced and cutesy. King fumbles in numerous ways, not least of which being the casting of comedy genius Rowan Atkinson for roughly 10 lines. The songs, too, are forgettable and bland and it’s tough to see a genuine treasure like Key play a role so quickly reduced to jokes about addiction and fatphobia.
Beyond that, it’s hard to shake the thought that, if this is indeed a prequel as Wonka’s hat and jacket would lead us to believe, homeboy’s gonna open a factory one day through which he’ll run a golden ticket contest so he can murder a bunch of kids. And yes, this movie is essentially for kids, but in a release window that includes Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent stunner, Wonka just feels like another reminder that the big-ass movie houses don’t have anything original to say just now.
+Pretty enough; nods to 1971 film not gratuitous
-Fatphobia and addiction jokes; Chalamet should maybe stick to brooding roles
Directed by King
With Chalamet, Lane, Joseph, Baynton, Lucas and Key
Violet Crown, Regal, PG, 116 min.