“You know, Charlie, I think a couple of these kids might be pure evil.” That’s the kind of thing Willy Wonka said to one child visiting his factory in 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. The prequel movie “Wonka” by filmmaker Paul King was inspired by Roald Dahl’s books about Wonka but not bound by them. It is a light-hearted two-hour musical comedy that tries to make you shed a tear or two here and there but mostly wants to entertain you and make you cheer for the good guys as they win out over the bad ones. Maybe all that performance, costume, song, and dance were more than necessary for this undertaking; it’s something called a pre-sold property (who doesn’t know and love Willy Wonka?).
Yes, it is formulaic—indeed so with self-referential jokes and puns that are so much as petulant if they weren’t charming. King along with cowriter Simon Farnaby gets this right from the word go and never loses it even when satirical or metaphorical aspects become somewhat apparent as expected; some situations are presented briefly in an attempt not to mess over the sweetness with salt. This tone is carefully observed by King, Simon Farnaby, and their collaborators at every moment from start till end while they do not let go off the pace either; there may be some satirical hints in there somewhere which can be obvious if sought but they come across very casually most times just like sight gags.
This automatically makes Wonka (Timothee Chalamet) plus Noodle (Calah Lane), his fellow protagonist who becomes his best friend/partner-in-crime sound sympathetic because they’re orphan characters we’ve already had enough of them aren’t we? For inspiration anytime he needs some; last chocolate bar made by his mom who brought him up in the jungle is what Wolinka carries around. (Sally Hawkins plays Mama Wonka in flashback scenes as she has become a sort of good luck charm for these big-budget fantasies.) The main bad guys are a triumvirate of all-powerful businessmen (Paterson Joseph’s Slugworth, Matt Lucas’ Prodnose and Matthew Banton’s Fickelgruber) who control the manufacturing and distribution of candy, keep the city’s corrupt police force under their thumbs (including the chocoholic chief of police played by Keegan Michael Key), and have gotten laws passed that make it almost impossible for anybody else to break into the business. A lot of this movie is about young Wonka trying to be successful on his own as a chocolatier, which is really just one more version of that old Horatio Alger story where the naïve country kid with ratty clothes gets off a bus in some big town somewhere carrying beat-up suitcases covered with stickers that disappear when he puts them down.
Another character cautions Wonka, “The greedy beat the needy every time.” The script captures that idea from its first musical sequence in which we see Wonka use up his twelve miserable sovereigns on such compulsory fines as daydreaming penalties. However, he is taken in by what seems to be a kind local innkeeper (Olivia Colman’s Mrs. Scrubbit) and her big lovable sidekick Bleacher (Tom Davis), a towering bass voice imbecile only to realize later that checking into the hotel meant he could foot his own bill with his work if need be and everything else he does adds to it including going up to your room.
(The constant fines levied on all but the rich are a Dahl-like touch, bordering on Dickensian. Ditto the cruel characters’ tendency to manhandle, club and kick the powerless, including Noodle, who’s just a kid.)
Wonka finally ends up in a laundry basement sweatshop with other indentured workers like Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), a one-time accountant for Slugworth, and Noodle who becomes fast friends with Wonka creating a sibling love which gives another unexpected aspect of this tale. What Wertham wants more than anything else is not so much victory over other chocolate companies but saving their employees. But the path is far from smooth sailing.
Again and again, the script makes Wonka take one step forward and two steps backward (something Chalamet actually does in a scene where he’s walking down the steps—you don’t often see an actor convey metaphor through their feet).
However, like for any well-laid plan of mice and men, there are unforeseen mishaps or the villain’s involvement; therefore, quick thinking on your feet is required which coincidentally happens to be something Wonka and Noodle excel in. And when all else fails, this is a fantasy—sometimes a cartoonish one. We never really get a sense of what resources poor old destitute Wonka has at his disposal, and what we do see suggests he is either some sort of extraterrestrial being who can only be limited by conditioning or psychology. The chocolate-making “travel kit” that he carries could easily pass as a miniature factory that looks like it runs off its own energy system.
It’s not long before we arrive on the first day Nathan Crowley lets us into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. When Wonka decides to open up his own chocolate shop (well don’t tell me you didn’t think so?) it gets started without worrying about where to get the money from who will supply the materials, how many permits would be needed, and armies of contractors to make things happen. That aside, this scene is also very cheeky in resembling the transition in “The Blues Brothers” where Cab Calloway is told that he needs to stall for time at the theater where the big show is supposed to occur and it cuts away revealing Calloway and band members on an art deco set from 1930 with white tuxedos playing “Minnie the Moocher”.
Wonka,” however thankful because it is full of contrivances, manipulations, and absurdist exaggerations but allows its good-hearted trickster hero and few other characters to comment upon them too – although not like Bugs Bunny would or Deadpool yet almost practically so. The universe depicted through Nathan Crowley’s production design, Lindy Heming’s costumes and Chung-hoo Chung’s cinematography resembles one of Wonka’s chocolates: it’s slightly gritty and connected to the reality of economic depression but that is where the likeness of this film with reality ends. There’s a class system here, and the one percent rules over everyone else. But there’s no racism (it’s a multicultural cast). The casting decision in “Wonka” is intended to counter accusations that the future workers in Wonka’s factory, Oompa-Loompas are Orientalist stereotypes including nonwhite people by making Hugh Grant play the only one among them that is a chocolate thief who comes to visit Wonka when he is asleep and thus kind of an English leprechaun who has his own variation of that mythical treasure trove. However, apart from the police chief who swells up from all the bribed candy he eats, Dahl’s habit of associating normal beauty with morality and any deviation as being ugly has also gone missing.
The city that Wonka conquers is somehow Londonish or Parisian but not really; instead, it resembles old/new town settings from fantasy/sci-fi movies like those featured in “The French Dispatch,” “Amelie” and “Moulin Rouge.” Nevertheless, most performances are beyond great (Colman and Grant are both amazing as ever), although their script lets down some actors while they are doing laundry.
In this review there might also be another pretty puzzling point; cinematography looks absolutely stunning with its silvery appearance during flashbacks or select scenes with day light while at night time or in dim locations it comes off as washed-out like something you wouldn’t bother watching on Netflix – original productions. (Is it due to re-shoots?) Whatever anyone else says about Tim Burton’s 2005 Wonka movie, it looked awesome throughout, every frame had something interesting going on.
Now, concerning the music: I can’t hum or even quote from this piece. Nevertheless, I found many of the songs super-exciting, especially one in the opening scene when Wonka parts ways with his money. In this adaptation, they borrow from the 1971 adaptation (in particular Joby Talbot’s score quotes some lines from the Oompa Loompa song and “Pure Imagination” that also appear in the earlier film). This is because it is expected by their audience members. For older audiences, these are Pavlovian tear-jerkers. It is precisely this type of response that productions such as this, which are driven by “intellectual property,” exist for. It isn’t all that different from yet another Batman movie or a Disney prequel like Cruella (The cop corruption stuff is similar to “The Batman.”).
However, for the most part, “Wonka” is so good at what it does that whether or not it’s a cynical enterprise is neither here nor there. It’s got as much enthusiasm as Wonka himself, who Chalamet plays with an elegantly withholding quality; moments of quiet contemplation and madcap inspiration make him seem like Gene Wilder’s long-lost grandchild.
Read Wonka Movie Review on Fmovies