Wonka (PG) ★★★

Review Date: December 13th, 2023

Even though it is rather obviously trading on a familiar and beloved brand, Wonka is nevertheless a fun and imaginative family film - certainly better than one might expect from a production crassly viewed by some as a "cash grab." While the movie is set up as a prequel to the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it owes as much to The Greatest Showman as it does to the earlier movie. The narrative manages the difficult task of resurrecting the blended sweetness and nastiness of the original confection. Although the story is original and Roald Dahl is credited only as the creator of the characters, the tone is reflective of his work. While Tim Burton leaned heavily into the dark weirdness of Dahl and Mel Stuart preferred to lighten the mood, Paul King skates a line in between the two.

2023 hasn't been an especially good year for family entertainment. Most releases have either been too childish for adults to enjoy or too "mature" for younger kids to appreciate. Wonka is one of the few (and perhaps the only live action example) to find a happy medium. It's softer than the PG-13 Barbie and not as juvenile as the various cartoon movies that have dotted the landscape. Altogether, although far from a perfect motion picture, Wonka is better than one might expect because it pays homage to the Gene Wilder iteration while telling its own story.

The narrative transpires about 15-20 years prior to the events related in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (or, alternately, the 2005 Burton remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in an anonymous European city. That's where a wet-behind-the-ears chocolatier, Willy Wonka (Timothee Chalamet), arrives to make his fortune by opening a shop at the Galeries Gourmet. Unfortunately, as good as Willy's wares are (and they are very good), they can't save him from those who would prey on his naivete, like the innkeeper Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), or the leaders of the city's Chocolate Syndicate, Mssrs. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Matthey Bayton).

Willy soon finds himself in a perilous position. Unable to pay for his room, he becomes an indentured servant to Mrs. Scrubbit, who forces him to slave away in a launderette. While there, he bonds with the other workers, including the grumpy Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), and befriends Mrs. Scrubbit's serving girl, Noodle (Calah Lane). He also notices a small orange man following him around; he will later learn that this is Lofty (Hugh Grant), an Oompa-Loompa. Willy is determined not to be defeated by his dire circumstances and hatches an improbable plan by which he will escape from Mrs. Scrubbit's clutches and achieve his dream despite the opposition from the syndicate and their bought-and-paid-for police chief (Keegan-Michael Key).

Wonka is sometimes funny, sometimes weird, and sometimes silly. The musical nature of the production requires quite a bit of singing. In addition to several new songs composed by Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot, some of which are catchy, the movie brings back a couple of classics from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley numbers "Oompa-Loompa" (with reworked lyrics) and "Pure Imagination." Sadly, there was no room for "The Candy Man." Generally speaking, the music in Wonka could be considered a high point...with one reservation. As energetic and charismatic as he might be as an actor, Chalamet is a horrible singer. His strident crooning of "A World of Your Own" makes the otherwise enjoyable tune into an exercise in endurance.

Chalamet's performances echoes that of Gene Wilder without aping him. Whereas Wilder's Wonka was an enigmatic presence, Chalamet's portrayal is uniformly appealing. He is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast that includes Olivia Colman, the gruff Jim Carter (best known as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey), and Sally Hawkins (as Willy's mom and the inspiration for all his endeavors). Hugh Grant has been cut down to size and colored up (Grant, in typical fashion, indicates he hated playing the part). And Keegan-Michael Key gets to start the film looking somewhat normal before plumping up to resemble Mr. Creosote in one of the movie's best sight gags.

The set design is fantastical without being overbearing and, late in the proceedings, provide a direct link to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The humor varies from endearing to subversive. There are instances when one might wonder whether someone from Monty Python snuck in and wrote a few lines. Cash-grab or not, Wonka is a welcome parfait to top off the meatier entrees that the film industry offers at this time of year.

© 2023 James Berardinelli