Wonka (dir. Paul King)

By: Adam Freed

There will always be room for family entertainment that demonstrates the endless possibilities attainable by way of optimism.  To dream endlessly and without consequence may be the most valuable skill a child can master.  Writer and director Paul King (Paddington 2) bottles “a world of pure imagination” in his Roald Dahl inspired Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory  (1971) musical prequel Wonka.  King’s iteration of Dahl’s source material refreshingly diverges tonally from the gothic undertones of Tim Burton’s 2005 Charlie & The Chocolate Factory debacle.  Acting as the vessel of Paul King’s cinematic optimism is the sublime Timothée Chalamet, who can at long last erase any remaining doubts as to the limits of his potential.  A star of Chalamet’s caliber is prone to conceal a small assortment of production based shortcomings, and to Wonka’s benefit, King found the right man for the job.

Rest easy, Chalamet can sing, but it isn’t enraptured in song where he will capture the hearts of audiences late to recognize his allure.  Despite Wonka opening with an oddly Sweeney Todd-esque “I’ve arrived to make my mark” number, it is when Chalamet’s Willy Wonka allows audiences to feel the heartbeat of his motivation that he becomes a hero worthy of admiration.  The production is a palatable balance of practical and CG world building, yet for every visual improbability threatening to relegate Wonka into the ever growing heap of the forgettable, there is Timothée Chalamet who with his heart on his sleeve and a gleam in his eye, extends a warm handed reminder that it is ok to dream, and there is to be no shame felt in pursuit of one’s ambition, no matter how detached from reality it may be.  It is indeed possible to be great in a film that is less than so, and Chalamet is proof.

In support of Wonka’s imaginative chocolatiering pursuits, is a small ensemble of notable acting talent, who unfortunately do not benefit from a script that allows room for a great deal of character dynamism.  The biggest regret in this regard is Academy Award winner and gravitational actress Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), who as the aptly named Mrs. Scrubbit selfishly benefits from the indentured servitude of those she cons into running her laundry business.  As animated and distinct as Coleman’s character is, there is no amount of talent that can overcome the script infused burdens of her static nature.  In addition to this are the somewhat muted appearances of Keegan-Michael Key and the sadly CG rendered Oompa Looma who is given partial life by the face and voice of Hugh Grant.  Both actors imbue a natural warmth and charisma that is insulated from view by the narrowness of their character’s design.    

At its best, Wonka is a delightful, thoughtful and uplifting invitation to dream as if age is of no consequence.  The film’s production design is a wonder, especially in the array of edible confectionaries that ooze tasty temptation throughout.  The film is dotted with songs that barely float above becoming memorable, yet are performed with a surplus of joy, acting in defense of their existence.  Fans of Gene Wilder’s 1971 original will surely fight back a few lump in throat inducing musical moments that when unleashed, make Wonka a film worthy of a winter’s night out with loved ones.  Wonka is a silky sweet reminder that star power is real, and that despite his youth, Timothée Chalamet is amongst the greatest of this era.

Target Score: 6.5/10  Wonka is a semi-sweet treat lifted beyond mediocrity by the generational talent of its singular star Timothée Chalamet.  Paul King’s musical prequel offers many sweet and enjoyable morsels throughout, but never reaches the delicious saccharine thematic standard set by his career defining Paddington 2 (2017).  The notable supporting talents of Olivia Coleman and Hugh Grant lack the flavor profile befitting a world class chocolatier.