Wonka review: A cosy chronicle of a young eccentric
The prequel is a magical thrill ride from start to finish – even if it lacks the bite of previous Roald Dahl adaptations.
Roald Dahl’s children’s stories are frequently sinister, and even cynical, as illustrated by the two earlier big-screen versions of his 1964 fantasy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Both the 1971 adaptation (renamed to focus on Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka) and Tim Burton’s borderline fan-fiction-esque 2005 reboot arguably contain stronger elements of peril and jeopardy than are usual in most youngsters’ film fare.
Wonka, however, an origin story co-written by director Paul King and comic actor Simon Farnaby, is a markedly sweeter affair; not quite the dark chocolate served to cinemagoers previously.
It’s perhaps expected, given the pair’s warm-hearted work on 2014’s Paddington and its sequel (plus Farnaby’s writer/performer involvement in TV’s Horrible Histories and family-friendly sitcom Ghosts), and the softer approach has both strengths and weaknesses.
Timothée Chalamet stars as the bright-eyed, brimming-with-positivity Willy, hoping to take the early 20th century confectionary industry by storm with the inventive, attention-grabbing recipes passed down to him my his mother (Sally Hawkins).
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There’s a touch of Dickensian hero about him, while his outlandish creations and kitchen contraptions also suggest a steampunk Heston Blumenthal.
So far, so delicious, but the young pretender’s ambitions leave a nasty taste in the mouths of a consortium of more established chocolatiers (led by Paterson Joseph), who set out to thwart the Johnny-come-lately flavour of the month.
Not that it’s a case of Wonka versus the rest of the world, as Willy finds sympathetic allies in the guise of crusty accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter) and put-upon orphan girl Noodle (Calah Lane).
Mention must be made, of course, of Willy’s pal, who attracted a good deal of publicity in the months running up to the film’s release; camera trickery and a generous trowel of orange face paint transform Hugh Grant into a foot-high, wisecracking Oompa Loompa called Lofty.
It’s a scene-stealing performance, perhaps largely because it’s by an actor as well-known as Grant looking like we’ve never seen him before.
There is a danger, though, that the parade of very familiar faces (Olivia Colman, Matt Lucas, Rowan Atkinson as a stereotypically awkward clergyman) gives proceedings the air of a star-studded Children in Need sketch, a level of "stunt" casting that’s more distracting than pertinent.
Thankfully, Chalamet is effortlessly assured and charismatic enough to ground the movie, a likeable protagonist it’s easy to root for, bereft of the shadier character traits of the elder Wonka in Dahl’s original book and previous films.
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King and Farnaby offer no clues as to how or why Willy went sour to become the cruel figure Dahl first created (maybe they’re saving that for a future instalment), and at no time does the cartoonish villainy that peppers the film seem like a genuine threat.
This is a cosy chronicle of a young eccentric intent on little more than bringing calorific joy to the world, his infectious enthusiasm enabling us to forgive the narrative its lack of bite.
A half-dozen or so musical numbers, written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, punctuate the story, rather than propel it forward. They’re solid, if not especially memorable, save for A World of Your Own, presumably tailored to provide an anthem-like showstopper moment, but there’s nothing close to the calibre of the '71 film’s evergreen Pure Imagination.
Chalamet delivers a pleasing, casual croon while not possessing the commanding pipes of a seasoned musical theatre exponent. It’s good enough for what’s asked of him, and any vocal limitations are neatly masked by the matter-of-fact conversational structure of the songs.
Inevitably, viewers of certain ages will compare and contrast Wonka with the screen interpretations of their own childhoods, yet although there is a wealth of recognisable touchstones to what went before, it may be wiser to receive the film as a Year Zero proposition.
Chalamet’s candy man is, to a large extent, a blank canvas not yet tainted by the bitter vengeance Wilder or Johnny Depp (in the Burton version) brought to the role.
"I’m something of a magician," he tells us early on, and Wonka is a magical thrill ride from start to finish, with only a few forgivable bumps along the way.
The baggage the character collects in later life shouldn’t really concern us here, while we allow ourselves to be captivated by the younger man, when he had a purer imagination.