A delectable Timothée Chalamet, the delightful team behind the 'Paddington' films, and hefty dollops of warmth and whimsy make this prequel a golden ticket.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 11, 2023


Which cravings will Wonka inspire? Chocolate, of course, and also an appetite for more of filmmaker Paul King's blend of the inventive, warm-hearted and surreal. The British writer/director's chocolatier origin story is a sweet treat from its first taste, and firmly popped from the same box as his last two movie delights: Paddington and Paddington 2. Has the helmer used a similar recipe to his talking-bear pictures? Yes. Was it divine with that double dip in marmalade, and now equally so with creative confectionery and the man behind it? Yes again. While it'd be nice to see King and his regular writing partner Simon Farnaby (also an actor, complete with an appearance here) make an original tale again, as they last did with 2009's superb and sublime Bunny and the Bull, watching them cast their spell on childhood favourites dishes up as effervescent an experience as sipping fizzy lifting drinks. It's as uplifting as munching on hover chocs, too, aka the debut creation that Wonka's namesake unveils in his attempt to unleash his chocolates upon the world.

Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet, Bones and All) has everlasting gobstobbers, golden tickets and a whole factory pumping out a sugary rush in his future, as Roald Dahl first shared in 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then cinemagoers initially saw in 1971's Gene Wilder-starring all-timer Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Wonka churns up the story before that story, and technically before 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Tim Burton (Wednesday) as led by Johnny Depp (Minamata) — but the less remembered about that most-recent adaptation, the better. There's no on-the-page precedent for this flick, then. Rather, King and Farnaby use pure imagination, plus what they know works for them, to delectable results. What they welcomely avoid is endeavouring to melt down Dahl's bag of tricks and remould it, and also eschew packing in references to past Chocolate Factory flicks like a cookie that's more chocolate chips than biscuit.

Wonka is a prequel devoted to telling its own tale — and deliciously — instead of stretching itself like over-chewed bubblegum to stick again and again to all that precedes it. The nods are there, including in the type of villains that Dahl could've penned, and the turns of phrase. Visual minutiae harks backwards, top hat and all, while 'Pure Imagination' and the Ooompa-Loompa flute whistle get more than a single spin. In the worst of the throwbacks, obesity is used as a gag once more like over half a century hasn't passed since Willy Wonka was conjured up. But they're all the feature's sprinkles, not its main ingredients. Come to Wonka and you'll be viewing a film that values its own narrative, magic, whimsy and wonders by the bucketful. Swimming in its river of hopes, aspirations, enchantment and earnestness brings Barbie to mind, in fact, in how to bake something new and flavoursome from pre-existing intellectual property.

The trailers largely hide it; however, Wonka is as much of a musical as pop culture's greatest sweet tooth's prior dances across the screen, opening with him singing as he sails to the unnamed European locale that's home to the Galeries Gourmet. Once back on land, he's soon spent his 12 silver sovereigns before a day has passed and his introductory number is over, but the eccentric's hat full of dreams — a Mary Poppins-esque item that contains all manner of physical marvels, too — hasn't come close to running out. Mere minutes in, Chalamet shows how magnificently he's been cast as the wide-eyed, eternally optimistic, crooning-with-cheer young Wonka, wearing sincerity as closely and comfortably as his character's go-to purple suits. He's a daydream made tangible, whether beaming with enthusiasm about every chance that comes Willy's way, speaking in sing-song rhymes or frolicking with a waved-around cane. Never trying to be previous versions of Wonka (no one can replicate Wilder, and no one should want to ape Depp), he's a pleasure at getting goofy as well, sans even a dash of the exquisitely played moodiness, vulnerability and cool that's served him so well in Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, Little Women and Dune.

At Willy's new home, three shops run by Slugworth (Paterson Joseph, Boat Story), Prodnose (Matt Lucas, DC's Legends of Tomorrow) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton, Ghosts) monopolise the sweets trade, but he wants to be the mall's next candyman. The chocolate cartel doesn't take kindly to newcomers, though, or making treats affordable to the masses. With assistance from a corrupt cleric (Rowan Atkinson, Man vs Bee) and chocoholic chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key, The Super Mario Bros Movie), the core trio has the power and influence to send their unwanted competitor's life's wish down the drain before it even gets a chance to set. Finding a place to stay at a washhouse run by Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman, Heartstopper) and her offsider Bleacher (Tom Davis, Romantic Getaway), then getting landed with a debt that'll take 27 years of labour to pay off for just a night's slumber, also threatens to give his quest a sour taste. Then there's the orange-skinned, green-haired Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves) stealing Wonka's cocoa morsels out of revenge.

All innocence, charm, buoyancy and tenderness just like a certain Peruvian mammal, Chalamet's star turn is the acting equivalent of having dessert for dinner and relishing every second. That said, there's nothing insubstantial about the fellow talents that surround him, with King's knack for filling parts big and small getting another scrumptious whirl. If the filmmaker wants to continue providing Grant with the scene-stealing comedic supporting roles of his life, audiences will devour his presence. Bringing Sally Hawkins over from the Paddington films to play Wonka's mother in flashbacks is a joyously touching move. Joseph, Lucas and Bayton make entertainingly haughty villains, while Key, Colman and Davis (also a Paddington 2 alum) are all having a ball. Farnaby turns a silhouetted moment as a security guard feasting on Willy's big night out truffle into a gem. And among Scrubbit and Bleacher's other indentured workers, Calah Lane (This Is Us) invests feeling and pluck in the orphaned Noodle, with Jim Carter (Downton Abbey: A New Era), Rakhee Thakrar (Sex Education), Natasha Rothwell (Sonic the Hedgehog 2) and Rich Fulcher (Black Mirror) engagingly rounding out the rag-tag laundry crew.

Fulcher's involvement, like Farnaby's, nods to another jewel that King helped gift the world: The Mighty Boosh. The director helmed all 20 episodes, plus the comedy troupe's live Future Sailors Tour special — and its phantasmagorical and heightened vibe, as well as its winning wit, offbeat humour, fondness for silliness and textured details, live on in the filmmaker's big-screen efforts so far. Much is made in Wonka of Willy's compendium of components for his ingenious chocolate, such as giraffe's milk, salty tears from a Russian clown and liquid sunshine. King crafts his own irresistible confection in the same way, with heapings of gorgeous spectacle via its lavish cinematography (by the OG Oldboy's Chung-hoon Chung), production design (Nathan Crowley, Tenet) and costuming (Paddington franchise returnee Lindy Hemming); everything that his actors splash in; and also the memorable score (Joby Talbot, Sing 2) and tunes (Talbot and Neil Hannon, who were both in Northern Ireland-born band The Divine Comedy). And the banding together to bring down capitalist bigwigs dotted in the plot? What a cherry on top it proves.


Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x