5 out of 5
Ever since Gene Wilder brought Roald Dahl’s iconic character to life, legions of fans have been captivated by his sugar-coated world of pure imagination. There’s just something alluring about Gene Wilder’s performance that draws us in and ensnares a permanent place in our affections. Maybe it's the joyfulness with an undercurrent of menace which threatens to emerge at any moment. So when Paul King (who helmed both Paddington filmms) was tasked with bringing the character back to the big screen, I was apprehensive, not because of King's talent; moreso because I did not enjoy Tim Burton's and Johnny Depp's interpretation. With Timothée Chalamet as the visionary chocolate maker and King promising to pay homage to the masterwork of Wilder; could this ambitious prequel deliver the perfect recipe for success. Or is this latest return to the chocolate factory a sour ever-lasting gobstopper?
Fear not Wonka fans because this latest adventure is a scrumdiddlyumptious treat. Paul King has crafted the perfect selection box of goodies that harnesses the essence of Gene Wilder’s beloved chocolatier and blends it with the energetic freshness of Timothée Chalamet. The result is an all-singing, all-dancing love letter to the original that takes us back to the very beginning; to a time when Willy is yet to embark on his culinary quest of chocolate heaven. But of course, standing in his way is the evil chocolate cartel headed by his arch-nemesis…Arthur Slugworth.
Thankfully, King doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, he takes us by the hand and takes us back to Gene Wilder’s delectably familiar sandbox. The film is all the more richer as a result. From the opening moments, we are thrust into a musical number that serves to remind us of the world we know and love. It’s here we meet Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet), a fresh-faced dreamer returning to civilization and determined to bring chocolate paradise to the masses. However, this isn’t the Willy Wonka we remember, Here he is naive, innocent, and unfamiliar with the bitterness of the “real world.”
To his credit, Timothée Chalamet is brilliant. He makes the role his own, all the while tapping into the essence of Gene Wilder’s eccentric rendition. Thankfully, he brings the character to life in a fresh but familiar way. All the hallmarks of Wilder’s character are here in full force, all the while being wrapped in a fresh young version that hits all the right notes. Chalamet is flawless. Not a single chink in the armour and the best compliment I can pay is that by the time the credits roll, we feel as though we’ve been whisked away on a Willy Wonka adventure.
After establishing the Dickensian world of Wonka, King introduces us to the characters that carry this new story forward. He has amassed a sensational cast here. Olivia Colman’s Mrs. Scrubbit is a wonderfully wicked villain plucked from the pages of Roald Dahl’s masterwork. And Coleman excels here. In every scene, she reminds us why she is regarded as a national treasure, and rightly so. Like Chalamet, Coleman is flawless. Her evil energy is infectious, and I truly hope we get to see more of Mrs. Scrubbit in the future. Coleman enjoys flexing her baddie muscles, and she takes to the material like a duck to water.
The same can be said for Tom Davis’ Bleacher. Initially presented as Scrubbit’s henchman, he quickly morphs into her defacto love interest, and their rapport is exceptional. They are the perfect foil for one another, and their interactions are some of the best and most charming moments in the film. Paterson Joseph brings Arthur Slugworth to life and adds meat to the bones of a character that has always remained in the shadows. Finally, we are introduced to Willy Wonka’s arch-nemesis, and he lives up to his billing. Joseph’s energy is incredibly alluring. At times, Slugworth is a truly sinister villain while at others, he’s completely hilarious. And he is the head of the infamous chocolate cartel.
Rounding out the members of the Chocolate Cartel are Matt Lucas as Prodnose, and Mathew Baynton as Fickelgruber. One can be forgiven for thinking these secondary characters would fade into the background to allow Slugworth his time in the limelight. But you’d be dead wrong. This trio delivers a delectable ensemble that deserves our attention. At times, these Dahl villains are truly vile. But mostly, they serve as the perfect comedy relief, and their interactions with Keegan-Michael Key’s Chief of Police are pure comedy gold.
Other notable members of the cast are Calah Lane who makes her debut as Noodle, an orphan who befriends Willy. Jim Carter offers a safe pair of hands on the scrubbing wheel as Abacus Crunch, Natasha Rothwell is great as Piper Benz, and Rich Fulcher brings the fun as Larry Chucklesworth. All three are brilliant, despite their limited screen time.
But the most underrated member of the cast here is Hugh Grant as Lofty, the Oompa-Loompa. Here, Grant is completely AWFUL. Utterly woeful…wait, strike that, reverse it! I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but Grant is exceptional as an Oompa-Loompa. This is a perfectly balanced scene-stealing performance that hits all the right notes. From the iconic Oompa-Loompa whistle to the classic song, all the tropes are brought back for us to marvel at. Grant sinks his teeth into the role with zeal. Again, the performance evokes our nostalgia for Gene Wilder’s movie and serves to connect the films perfectly, even adding weight to the relationship between Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas in general.
In the end, the relationship between Wonka and Lofty is the backbone of the franchise and one that will become the template for everything that follows. From the creation of the chocolate factory to the distribution of the golden tickets. Wonka and Lofty are at the very heart of the property and their relationship offers a newfound appreciation for Wilder’s rendition.
Last but not least, I’d like to touch on the music and score for the film. Some of the best filmmakers in the business regard a film’s score as the heart of the film itself. That has never been more accurate than in Wonka. Joby Talbot has crafted a wonderful uplifting score that injects the film with a healthy dose of childlike innocence. All the while incorporating the classic themes from Leslie Bricusse’s soundtrack from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The classic melodies serve to connect the films and whisk us away on a journey of nostalgic brilliance. The result is a joyous experience that will leave you grinning as the credits roll.
Much like its predecessor, Wonka makes use of several musical numbers that bring Timothée Chalamet’s musical talent to the fore. Neil Hannonn(of The Divine Comedy fame) has crafted some exceptional new songs for this adventure, and they are just as memorable as any other song in the franchise. Chalamet dazzles here, and his affinity for song and dance came as a surprise to me. His roles to date have been sometimes sullen and whiney. I was wrong. He seems at home in these big set pieces and could give Danny Kaye a run for his money. Anyone thinking that the days of musicals are over better think again. I make no apologies for loving every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, not all of the new songs hit the ground running, but overall, hats off to Hannon for delivering some wonderful new additions to the Wonka playlist.
Overall, Wonka is a scrumdiddlyumptious treat. Paul King has crafted the perfect selection box by blending the brilliance of Gene Wilder with the energetic freshness of Timothée Chalamet. It’s decadently fresh while beautifully nostalgic making the film a real pleasure. From the opening moments, we are thrust into a traditional Roald Dahl story that captures the essence of the source material and delivers an uplifting experience that will dazzle the whole family.
Some of the songs don’t quite fit, and many characters don’t get nearly enough screen time. But, with its grand scale, exceptional Dickensian cinematography, brilliant performances, childlike innocence, and all-singing all-dancing nostalgia, Wonka is the best sweet in the box. So grab your case of Wonka bars, dust off your golden tickets, and enter the hallowed halls of pure imagination. Living there, you’ll be free…if you truly wish to be!