8 Magical Reasons to Experience ‘Wonka’
Dec 7, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Dec 7, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
First appearing in Roald Dahl’s 1954 book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the character of Willy Wonka achieved pop culture immortality through Gene Wilder’s (Young Frankenstein, The Producers) brilliantly unhinged take in the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A Tim Burton-led 2005 version starring Jonny Depp reintroduced the character to modern audiences, but there was little clamor [in the nearly two decades since] for anyone to revisit the franchise.
Wonka opens with the titular chocolatier (Timothée Chalamet, Dune) arriving in Europe from parts unknown, his heart set on crafting treats for the world to enjoy. Blocking his way is the Chocolate Cartel, a group of businessmen who will stop at nothing to preserve their monopolistic hold on the market. When Wonka is trapped in a boarding house over a bogus contract, he’ll need to work with his fellow prisoners to escape, while also finding a way to get his chocolates onto the market.
From the opening sequence, Timothée Chalamet puts his stamp on the role; while elements of his predecessors’ portrayals can be seen, the young actor injects new dimensions to the title character to the point that you never actually question his stewardship – he is Willy Wonka. We are decades removed from the cynical, lonely tycoon who employs sadistic personality tests to suss out rotten children, making it all the easier (if somewhat tragic) to fall in love with this iteration of the whimsical confectioner.
Wonka’s utterly unnecessary nature [as a prequel] is belied by the obvious love and care taken by director Paul King (Paddington) and his crew to bring his wondrous world to life. Existing in a stylized amalgamation of Europe’s capitals, where everyone’s dressed in their fairy tale best, and pedestrians are all too happy to consume a stranger’s bug chocolates, the audience is swept away by the pure imagination on display.
The storytelling is chock-full of wit delivered at breakneck speed, punctuated by endlessly inventive segues and flashback sequences that heighten the fantasy.
Best of all is the inclusion of Dahl’s signature twisted humor, delivering such gems as a zoo guard’s lifelong love story, a subplot of mistaken identity and short shorts, and a church defended by a squad of chocoholic monks.
Wonka’s fellow prisoners are an enjoyably eccentric bunch, comprising bookkeeper Abacus (Jim Carter, Downton Abbey), Piper the Plumber (Natasha Rothwell), aspiring comedian Larry (Richard Fulcher, The Mighty Boosh), and phone operator Lottie (Rakhee Thakrar, Sex Education). While they’re all good people on the inside, years of toiling under the watchful eyes of their captors have dulled their enthusiasm.
Initially skeptical of the madman in a hat, Wonka’s boundless energy and innovative methods win them over, and it isn’t long before they’re assisting in his underground chocolate dealership. Each of the actors ascribes their parts with precisely the amount of tongue-in-cheek needed to sell the fantasy world, albeit filtered through a layer of melancholy that Dahl would have loved.
Whether they’re having impromptu midnight conferences from behind bars, or convening around a perilously perched pigeon coup, these actors clearly knew the assignment and delivered in every scene.
Chief among the captives is Noodle (child actor Calah Lane), a young orphan whose organized and practical ways help realize Wonka’s flights of fancy while keeping him down to Earth. The mystery of her parentage is apparent to anyone who’s ever seen a soap opera, but the sincerity with which Land and Chalamet play out Noodle’s storyline helps to sell the cliché.
The joy that Chalamet and his costars bring to the table would be meaningless without the gleeful, demented energy employed by the film’s baddies, including the devious Mrs. Scrubbit (Academy Award-winner Olivia Colman, Empire of Light) and Bleacher (Tom Davis, Paddington 2), who scam people into indentured servitude.
Minor characters in previous adaptations, the Chocolate Cartel are fleshed out here as ruthless, over-the-top villains, such as Slugworth (Paterson Joseph, Noughts + Crosses), Prodnose (Matt Lucas, Little Britain, Doctor Who), and Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton, Ghosts) plot to eliminate Willy Wonka.
To do their dirty work, the trio employ a vast network of agents, including a corrupt clergyman played by Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, Love Actually), and a hilariously chocolate-addicted chief of police played by Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele, The Super Mario Bros. Movie).
Hugh Grant (Dungeons & Dragons, The Gentlemen) reportedly didn’t enjoy his time in the motion capture apparatus needed to create his character, but the disdain works in the film’s favor, as his curmudgeonly Oompa Loompa steals every scene he’s in. Sure, he’s a lot more posh than we’ve ever seen these creatures to be, but any change that eliminates the original text’s uncomfortable colonial connotations is welcome.
The sight of Grant’s reduced form dancing to the original Oompa Loompa theme tune from the 1971 film is a gift nobody expected to receive.
Don’t let the poor trailers dissuade you – Wonka is a joyous, magical film that manages to appeal to fans old and new, while also staking its own unique place in the franchise. One would even go so far as to say that the film ending years before its lead becomes a cynical, untrusting recluse is a good thing; if Wonka does well enough to justify a sequel, we could very well be treated to another film or two with this version of the character.
Leave it to Willy Wonka to remind us that wonders never cease.
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