Best known for his work on the successful Paddington films, British director Paul King has established himself as the go-to director for British family favourites. Although he is taking a step back from the much-anticipated Paddington in Peru (aka Paddington 3), King has stepped up to direct the origin story of one of Roald Dahl’s most famous characters, Willy Wonka.
Starring Timothée Chalamet in the eponymous character, Wonka follows the chocolatier as a young adult. He has dreams of opening a shop in a locale dominated by three prominent yet snobby chocolatiers – Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Ficklegruber (Mathew Boynton). Wonka’s innovative designs quickly win the hearts of the town while making him a rival in the chocolatiers’ eyes, so they use any means necessary to get rid of him.
For many audiences, Mel Stuart’s 1971 musical adaptation Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a childhood staple with Gene Wilder delivering a career-defining lead performance as Wonka. His performance is so iconic that Johnny Depp’s take on the famous character in Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation was as divisive as the film itself. So, the idea of a prequel about the fictional chocolatier/inventor feels like both a gamble amid the hectic Christmas season and a chance for Warner Bros to relieve the bitter taste left by Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
In this musical turn by King and co-screenwriter Simon Barnaby, 2023’s Willy Wonka is a dreamer who relies on “the kindness of others” – an approach that quickly gets him tricked by con artists Bleacher (Tom Davis) and Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), forcing him to work in the latter’s washhouse. His biggest ally is orphan Noodle (newcomer Calah Lane), who helps Wonka promote his creations to the public. Driven by their personal dreams, both characters have a touching kinship that offers a beautiful balance of realism and idealism – Noodle assists Wonka with his illiteracy and supports his ambition to become a world-famous chocolatier. At the same time, the inventor gives the youngster a chance to dream of a better life. Together, they brave thick and thin to ooze a wholesome and endearing charm that consistently runs throughout the film.
King and Barnaby weave their magic through an entertaining screenplay that offers laughs and quietly joyful moments, allowing Wonka’s optimism and enthusiasm to shine throughout the narrative. While King’s direction beautifully balances chaos with theatricality, Neil Hannon’s original songs bring an infectious energy without the creepiness – although the gentle chords of Pure Imagination occasionally bring a beautiful sense of nostalgia, the ghosts of the 1971 version are firmly in the shadows. The screenwriters also use Wonka to highlight further the three original “enemies” of Dahl’s novel, namely Wonka’s role models and rivals Slugworth, Finklegruber and Prodnose. They present themselves as respectable chocolatiers but thanks to an array of whimsical performances, their collective evilness and snobbiness against working-class people being able to buy chocolate shape them as the kind of villains audiences would expect from the mind of Roald Dahl – charming, immoral and dastardly.
After a string of serious and complex roles, Wonka allows Chalamet to offer a more light-hearted yet equally entertaining performance. He offers a physicality similar to Gene Wilder to bring a new Willy Wonka to a new generation but understands when the scene needs a sombre turn, brilliantly flipping the character’s childlike innocence to portray a more cohesive and less intimidating take on the character. Chalamet also isn’t afraid to take a step back for the supporting cast to shine, especially Lane, Colman and Hugh Grant, whose scene-stealing performance as an Oompa-Loopa builds on his memorable turn in Paddington 2.
Buoyed by Chalamet’s wonderful performance, Wonka is similar to a bar of chocolate – while it is occasionally dark, its undeniable sweetness will give audiences a warm fuzzy feeling that is impossible to hate.
Wonka is out in UK cinemas on 15 December 2023.
Director: Paul King; Simon Barnaby (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Hugh Grant, Mathew Boynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson
Runtime: 116 minutes
Country: UK, USA