When it was announced that there was going to be a Willy Wonka origin story, detailing how he came to own a chocolate factory, the general reaction was “Why? Was anyone really asking for a prequel about this guy? It felt like another cynical attempt to cash in on a beloved property by a Hollywood that often seems like it’s running out of ideas. I suppose the question of whether or not consumers are interested in this concept will be answered by its opening weekend box-office gross. However, the next question (“Is there any way this could possibly be good?”) has now been answered with a pleasantly surprised “yes.”
Wonka may not inspire the passion that 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has for over fifty years, but it actually feels like the filmmakers truly wanted to create something magical and fun that could stand on its own while also showing appreciation for the original. Instead of being the lazy fan-service I feared, it is a legitimately entertaining family-friendly adventure.
Willy Wonka, a young man with a pocketful of dreams and no funds, arrives in the big city expecting to wow everyone with his brilliant chocolate creations, thereby achieving instant fame. When his plans are cruelly dashed by the evil chocolatiers who run the town, Willy vows to do what it takes to open his own shop.
While bad things happen to Willy on his journey, this is in no way a dark story. It is a joyful one, light and fluffy, focused on a man who mostly wants to make people happy. It is a musical and the songs are nearly all upbeat, energetic and include dance numbers. Even the song sung by the villains is played for laughs. Director/cowriter Paul King is responsible for the wonderful Paddington movies, about a bear who brightens up people’s lives just by being himself. King kind of handles Willy Wonka in the same way. Here is this sweet, eternally optimistic guy, who gives the message that anything is possible if you follow your heart. Money is certainly useful to him, yet the reason he longs to get everyone to taste his chocolate is to spread happiness.
Usually, in these big-budget franchise-type productions, the actors are there almost exclusively for their presence. The performances themselves don’t make or break things. Not so for Wonka (113 minutes, without the end credits). Timothée Chalamet is absolutely delightful in the title role, bringing a wonder and self-confidence that is central to the movie’s charm. He is so likable that it makes Willy’s flights of fancy far easier to get into. Going in, we sort of know how things are going to turn out for this guy. After watching Chalamet for ten minutes, I forgot about that and just embraced how fully he made this character his own. It is a very enjoyable performance, especially for a genre that tends to be more interested in spectacle.
Wonka is definitely not perfect. The story is a bit repetitive and it doesn’t entirely utilize the craziness of the magic contained in Willy’s chocolates. Still, that leaves a lot of simple pleasure to be had from seeing a silly musical about a good person who overcomes adversity by making tasty treats. Most of the movies I’ve been seeing lately are heavy or intense or bursting with meaning or some combination of the three. Wonka only wants to show its family audience a good time. It is refreshingly old-fashioned in both its positivity and in the decision to tell one full story, as opposed to the modern obsession with always setting up sequels. Though time will tell if this gets a follow-up, for now we get this, a nice little gift for the holiday season.
3½ out of 5
Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka
Calah Lane as Noodle
Paterson Joseph as Slugworth
Olivia Colman as Mrs. Scrubbit
Tom Davis as Bleacher
Keegan-Michael Key as Chief of Police
Directed by Paul King
Screenplay by Simon Farnaby and Paul King