PLOT: The origins of young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet), who arrives in a city known for its chocolate with the dream of becoming a master chocolatier.
REVIEW: I’ll admit something – I wasn’t all that keen on watching Wonka. While I have a soft spot for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, mainly due to Gene Wilder’s terrific performance in the lead, an origin story starring Timothee Chalamet seemed a touch too whimsical. Yet, the film inarguably has an ace up its sleeve in director Paul King, who proved with the first two Paddington films that he’s a master of so-called whimsy.
The film, which is a full-blown musical, really does cast a spell thanks mainly to the fact that Chalamet hits precisely the right note with his Willy Wonka. He’s doing Gene Wilder here, with no trace of Johnny Depp’s performance from the Tim Burton remake working its way in, even if the wardrobe he’s wearing seems somewhat Burton-esque.
Chalamet gets a lot of grief for being this slight, wispy leading man that seems to be adored by all, but here’s the thing – he’s perfect in a lot of the films he’s cast in. While I enjoyed Call Me By Your Name a lot, I figured he’d be typecast as a pretty boy, only for him to pull a 180 and deliver an impressively gritty performance in a little-known (but terrific) Netflix movie called The King. Then, there was Dune, and whomever wasn’t won over before was pretty much on board with the phenomenon.
But Wonka, which features him singing and dancing, is quite something. He throws himself into the role without even a touch of cynicism, being wholly immersed in the vibe Paul King is creating. He’s aided by a top-notch supporting cast, which includes Paddington’s Sally Hawkins in a small role as his late mother, Olivia Colman (having the time of her life) as a villainous business owner who cons Wonka into a life of servitude, and Paterson Joseph as the leering, impossibly evil Mr. Slugworth. And then, there’s Downton Abby’s Jim Carter as a pal Wonka makes along the way, Keegan Michael Key as a corrupt cop addicted to chocolate (his ever-increasing fat-suit may ruffle feathers) and a terrific young actress, Calah Lane, as Noodle, the orphan Wonka takes under his wing and protects.
What makes this whimsical romp work so well is how likeable Chalamet makes Wonka. Here, he’s an angelic presence, full of compassion and empathy for anyone. Remember how Wilder’s Willy Wonka affects an archness in the original, only to reveal his kindness at the end? Chalamet plays the whole film as Wilder does towards the end to some degree, as Wonka here is still fresh-faced and new to the world. Other actors would have been winking at the camera or affected a “too cool” vibe, but Chalamet goes all in. He does what’s most important in a movie like this – he doesn’t worry about making a fool out of himself.
Indeed, he comes off wonderfully under Paul King’s direction. My only issues with Wonka come in the film’s second half. Part of the charm of the Paddington films was how small they were to some extent, but King has a very lavish budget here. There’s maybe too much madcap adventure in the second half, and Hugh Grant, who killed in Paddington 2, comes in a little too late as an Oompa Loompa. He seems to be having fun, but his role makes the movie feel a tad overstuffed and would have been better saved for a follow-up were the film to do enough business to merit one.
Quibbles aside, I think Wonka is a great family movie for the holidays. While some may mock it as twee, everyone involved has their hearts in the right place. The fact that something so boldly sentimental and sweet still gets made is remarkable in our cynical age, so I give Wonka a big recommendation for that alone.