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Wonka Review: Timothée Chalamet Proves He Can Sing Too in This Delightful Origin Story Musical

One possible way of measuring whether a movie prequel is a good movie is whether it makes you want to revisit the old original. The new Warner Bros. film, Wonka, a prequel to the 1971 musical classic Willy Wonka And the Chocolate Factory, is a success by that measure. Starring Timothée Chalamet as the titular Roald Dahl character before he was a successful chocolatier, the new picture actually does something even better—makes you watch not only the original but also this worthy successor again.

When this film opens, Chalamet as young Willy approaches a snowy, oceanside city on a steamboat, and soon breaks out into song, twirling around the mast and smokestack of the ship, explaining his dreams and proclaiming his upcoming successes. Director Paul King, who was responsible for the delightful children’s story film Paddington, immediately sets the colorful and playful tone. The background is a rich grey, blue, helped by Cinematographer Lindy Hemming’s dedication to a surreal, luscious palette. Wonka has a top hat which operates in clown car like, fantastical fashion, and otherwise dons lavish garments, showcasing Mark Everson’s creative work. But the real attraction is Chalamet and his opportunity to showcase the original songs, courtesy of Neil Hannon.

Poster for Wonka (Warner Bros.)

Timothée is a talented young actor whose range has been evident from the beginning of his career, from actions films, to coming of age romances, and most genres in between. With Wonka, he has conquered the musical category as well. His boyish and innocent good lucks are perfectly cast for a character that is cast in Simon Farnaby’s script as idealistic, optimistic, and ever hopeful. In terms of tone-setting, Timothée immediately tells you in that opening sequence that he is going to be doing a lot of singing and twirling, and King telegraphs that this is going to be an emotional, fantastical movie for kids. Through that lens, Wonka is an unquestionable triumph. Grumpy cynics (or critics!) need not apply.

The story is straightforward and perfectly acceptable, suffused with comedic undertones in addition to fantastical ones. Wonka is following his dreams of becoming a world-famous chocolatier, and he is down to his last coins. He is motivated by his desire to spread happiness to the world through sweets. It is also motivated by his mother, played in a very minor role by an underutilized Sally Hawkins, who promised to return to his life if successful.

But he quickly encounters a series of challenges, given the corrupt nature of the world he encounters. First up is a shady innkeeper, Mrs. Scrubbit, played delightfully by Olivia Colman. This is the second Oscar winner to play a ludicrous villain this year, following in Viola Davis’ Hunger Games footsteps, and the movie is worth the price of admission for her alone. Scrubbit is akin to Helena Bonham Carter’s Madame Thenardier in Les Miz, with snarling teeth and a lower class, old school British accent to go with the stained aprons and grimy teeth. She is running a racket where she essentially enslaves unsuspecting travelers, and Wonka soon falls prey to her wiles.

Chalamet with Hugh Grant in Wonka (Warner Bros.)

To be fair, Willy had been warned by the capacious young orphan Noodle (newcomer Calah Lane, the film’s weakest element) that Scrubbit was setting a trap. Nevertheless, it is in the prison/inn that Wonka eventually meets a group of loyal allies in his endeavors, including an accountant played by Jim Carter.

Wonka’s troubles do not stop there. The biggest one is a corrupt triumvirate of chocolate tycoons running a secret cartel to smash the competition. Led by Arthur Slugsworth (Paterson Joseph), the trio bribes everyone from the local priest (Rowan Atkinson) to the chief of police (Keegan-Michael Kay) to quash any challengers to their chocolate empire, and Wonka soon becomes the object of their conspiracies. Lofty the Oompa-Loompa, played by Hugh Grant, eventually shows up, too, as a sort of foil but also ally of the young dreamer.

Wonka works as a fantasy children’s story at every level. On top of the strong below-the-line elements and the superb acting by Chalamet and Colman is a delightful script with memorable characters that elicit laughs and pull at the heartstrings. The three villains are cartoonish and played very well by the three comedian actors tasked to do so. They speak with ridiculously aristocratic undertones, saying “Juan-Ka” instead of “Wonka,” “azure” instead of “assure.” The chief of police, played by the supremely talented Keegan-Michael Kay, is addicted to chocolate and will do anything to have a lifetime supply, even if his wasteline bloats until he looks like some of the greedy, gluttonous kids in the original movie. The story of Noodle the orphan may be the film’s weakest element, but it’s only a morsel of a grander sequence of events.

Calah Lane with Chalamet in Wonka (Warner Bros.)

On top of all of this is a series of amusing, memorable, and creative new songs that do justice to the original – including a beautiful rendition of “Pure Imagination” – but also exist in their own right. Each of them advances the story, and is short enough to be worthy of an inventive new musical, as is King’s and Farnaby’s script. The two are now experts at adapting classic British children stories. Unlike prequels that falter and feel tedious, aimed only at creating an obvious bridge to the original story, this film presents a Wonka that is almost entirely different from the seclusive, cynical, and even somewhat dark character immortalized by Gene Wilder in 1971. Perhaps because it is free from the shackles that prequels to movies with big fan followings like Star Wars are brought down by, Wonka simply tells its own story, mindful but not slavishly wed to the original.

So when the credits do roll, you will have a smile on your face. Your kids will absolutely love it, and you will want to see the original again, even despite the horrid Johnny Depp remake of a few years ago. More importantly, you will want to hear the catchy songs, see the touching acting of this film, over again, too. Timothée Chalamet never ceases to surprise, and Wonka is no exception. It took not a little but a lot of imagination to bring this new film to the big screen, but the end result – a delightful family story for the ages –was well worth it.

Talent: A
Story: A-
Crafts: A
Awards Potential: Golden Globe Musical or Comedy nominations (Picture, Actor for Chalamet), Best Original Song, Production Design
Box Office Potential: Very good
Renewability: High – there is still a gap between this story and the one that spawned the Gene Wilder 1971 classic

Overall Score: A

Wonka will be released by Warner Bros. Pictures on December 15, 2023

Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Principal Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Kay, Matt Lucas, Paterson Joseph, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Colman, Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Grant
Director: Paul King
Screenwriter: Simon Farnaby, Paul King
Producers: David Heyman, Alexandra Derbyshire
DP: Chung-hoon Chung
Production Design: Nathan Crowley
Costume Design: Lindy Hemming
Editor: Mark Everson
Score: Joby Talbot

Twitter: @jdonbirnam

Instagram: @awards_predix

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