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Wonka Review: Paul King And Timothée Chalamet Stick The Landing

EDITORS' RATING : 7.5 / 10
  • Funny and charming
  • Lots of good musical numbers
  • Hugh Grant and Olivia Colman steal the show
  • Not enough of Roald Dahl's darkness
  • Too much of Dahl's views on fat people

Was anyone begging for a Willy Wonka origin story? Not really. The whole idea sounded like a joke movie from "30 Rock" that somehow escaped to the real world, and the trailers didn't inspire much confidence. Then again, "Paddington" looked downright nightmarish in its first trailers, and Paul King's movies about the marmalade-loving bear now get talked about in the same breath as "Citizen Kane." King has once again demonstrated his ability to exceed expectations with "Wonka," using the framework of a theoretically pointless prequel to deliver a candy-coated delight to viewers of all ages.

The catch here, if you consider it a catch, is that while "Wonka" is surprisingly good as a family fantasy musical comedy, it's not particularly in line with the character of Willy Wonka as portrayed in Roald Dahl's 1964 book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or in either of its two film adaptations (despite multiple nostalgic references to the 1971 movie). Timothée Chalamet is exceedingly likable in the title role, but maybe too likable to be recognizable as the misanthropic recluse who traumatizes naughty children with boat rides from Hell.

While the film's setting and supporting cast maintain some of the darker edges that defined Dahl's writing, Wonka himself remains wholesome to the end — a happy ending that suddenly becomes a lot less happy once one thinks about what could cause Chalamet's Wonka to grow into Gene Wilder's Wonka. Best to take the film on its own terms, then, as opposed to as a prequel.

The musical numbers sell the whimsical tone

One of my biggest worries going into "Wonka" was that this was a musical hiding any traces of its original songs in the marketing. What a relief, then, to watch the film's opening number and have those worries melt away. Timothée Chalamet can actually sing, Neil Hannon's songwriting cleverly establishes character while carrying the story forward, and the staging and choreography are pure classic Hollywood musical bliss. The seven new songs might not be as beautiful as "Pure Imagination" or as infectiously catchy as "Oompa Loompa" (both of which return in this movie), but they make for great set-pieces and fizzy fun, and days after my screening, I'm randomly finding myself humming "You Have Never Had Chocolate Like This."

"Wonka" immediately establishes a tone of earnest silliness and silly earnestness. The setting is out of time and out of recognizable reality, relishing cartoony absurdity and accented with magic, but it establishes its own internally consistent logic well enough that you're willing to buy into it. Chalamet's Wonka begins the movie incredibly naive and uneducated in every subject except chocolate-making, so he immediately falls into comical misfortune, but he cares about following his dreams — and the movie will make you care about him too. There's a magic steampunk flipbook flashback about how he got into the chocolate business because he loves his mom (Sally Hawkins)! You WILL feel the whimsy, and even if you want to roll your eyes when it comes to its obvious and arguably canon-contradicting morals about the power of friendship, you might get emotionally swept along with it anyway.

Friends, foes, and faux-pas

Of course, any good story about following dreams must have an array of great antagonists ready to crush them as well as supporting characters willing to challenge them, and this is where the real fun is with "Wonka." Olivia Colman is brilliant as always, playing Mrs. Scrubbit, the evil innkeeper who tricks Wonka and others into extreme debt and indentured servitude. Scrubbit and her partner, Bleacher (Tom Davis), are the most classically twisted Roald Dahl-style villains in the film, but Paul King can find empathy even for them in their hilarious love story. Then there's the Chocolate Cartel of Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Ficklegruber (Mathew Baynton), working to shut down competition via a conspiracy involving a corrupt police chief (Keegan-Michael Key) and church of chocoholic priests led by Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson).

Among his friends, Wonka's strongest counterpoint is Noodle (Calah Lane), a young girl with "orphanitis" who educates the absent-minded chocolatier on how to navigate the dangers of the world, including by giving him the literacy to eventually complain that kids these days watch too much TV instead of reading. Also vital in Wonka's maturation and character development is the Oompa-Loompa played by Hugh Grant, who steals both chocolate from Wonka and every single scene he appears in. The movie smartly dodges the potentially problematic aspects of Loompa lore with its sharp characterization of the snobbish, justice-seeking enemy-turned-ally.

Regrettably, the movie treads a bit too close for comfort to Roald Dahl's outright disdain for fat people, with a running gag involving a gradually expanding fat suit that really didn't need to be included in a film otherwise defined by Paddington-style kindness. It's not the worst thing in the world (King is talented at staging even problematic bits of slapstick), but it's an awkwardly mean-spirited turn in a movie that could arguably use a much more clever brand of meanness. But missteps like these are rare in "Wonka," which welcomes viewers to its whimsical wavelength and handily overcomes the skepticism surrounding its existence.

"Wonka" opens in theaters on December 15.