There’s something peculiar about a character, first drafted on the pages of a novel, immortalized by a fantastic talent in a beautiful classic film adaptation, woefully reimagined by two gifted talents, and now marked by a brilliant pastiche of the character originated on the pages of a classic novel: Willy Wonka, this time brought to life through the sublime talents of Timothée Chalamet in Paul King’s surprisingly good Wonka.
The phrase “surprisingly good” may come as a shock, though. Wonka has a legacy to stand up to. As an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s characters goes, Simon Farnaby’s and King’s script, based on a story from King itself based on characters by Dahl, is as bright and lively as the original with pockets of the darkness that permeated Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005.
Wonka itself is a delight but is not without some trials of its own. The pleasure comes first from seeing Timothée Chalamet prancing across the screen, not mockingly, but in a measured way. His performance as Wonka lives up to Wilder’s performance from the classic film, his own spin just a bit higher on the confectionary scale but no less imaginative. Feeling a bit like Annie as a character, Chalamet’s Wonka is down to his last bit when he makes landfall, seeking shelter while promising to create beautiful chocolates in the face of Mr. Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), a rather unremarkable character who plods and preens, appealing to the police chief, a hilarious Keegan-Michael Key, to put a stop to Wonka’s antics. Slugworth, Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton) have cornered the chocolate market and aim to keep their noose around it tight.
Even as the story ramps up and Wonka demonstrates his imagination, Slugworth feels unnecessarily threatened. The story does diminish the character as Joseph doesn’t feel as threatening or intimidating as the character did in the 1973 film, and the story’s reliance on Slughworth’s positioning does feel a bit on the nose.
Instead, as an origin story, Olivia Colman’s Mrs. Scrubbitt is Wonka’s true Achillie’s Heel, tamping him down along with Jim Carter’s Abacus Crunch and a host of other “guests” (Rich Fulcher, Rakhee Thakrar, Natasha Rothwell) at her hostel, guarded by the lovable brute, Bleacher (Tom Davis). At its crux, Wonka is defined by Calah Lane’s “Noodle,” a young girl who’s lost her way in her world, and it is up to Wonka to provide pure imagination to Noodle’s future.
King, who gave us Paddington, applies the same zeal to the drama and comedy even as the musical numbers outweigh the drama and comedy. Chalamet plays the part to our delight. Each of the supporting cast also includes a hilariously underutilized Rowan Atkinson and a pitch-perfect Hugh Grant as the Oompa Loompa.
Part of Wonka’s challenge lies in the fact that Wonka himself is seeking a closure of sorts. The character’s determination makes the effort worthwhile, if a bit clumsy story-wise. The bits with Key, Atkinson, Colman, Carter, and Grant all allow Chalamet to shine again, and the relationship between Wonka and Noodle is wonderfully accomplished. It doesn’t feel forced as Wonka understands his responsibilities even if he doesn’t have the golden ticket.
The character sideshows also get a bit ingratiating, but they’re all a part of Wonka’s spirit.
King makes mileage up in the technical areas of the story and the musical numbers; some are re-tuned from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, while others are brand new. They all add to the film’s atmosphere. Wonka truly shines in Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, with gloriously staged musical numbers and strongly composed camerawork, Joby Talbot’s score, and Neil Hannon’s new songs.
Wonka is a modestly budgeted film that will make sure there are future entries in the series. Chalamet makes Willy Wonka his own, though it is difficult not to think about Wilder’s performance in comparison; Wonka is a worthy entry into the Willy Wonka legacy.