Did we really need this movie? Probably not. But the origin story starring Timothée Chalamet as the eccentric chocolatier boasts outsized portions of music and magic.
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Oh yeah, I had my doubts — extra-large Wonka Bar-sized ones.
For me, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is pretty much a perfect movie. It has everything; it needs nothing. Director Mel Stuart and Gene Wilder perfectly captured the whimsical magic — and barely concealed impishness — of Roald Dahl’s book, with Dahl himself providing the screenplay.
Certainly it did not need a remake: Tim Burton’s with Johnny Depp looked fantastic but was just an exercise in weirdness for weirdness’ sake. And it just came out in 2005. Did we really need another Wonka movie?
But “Wonka,” a prequel starring Timothée Chalamet that explores the eccentric chocolatier’s origin, undeniably boasts outsized portions of music and magic.
I admit the charms of current Hollywood It Boy Chalamet have stubbornly eluded me. (Though I did like him in last year’s barely seen “Bones and All.”) His performances have struck me as foppish and inconsequential, like a puckish youth playing dress-up with the grownups. At my nastiest, I’ve dismissed him as a bouffant hairdo with an actor attached to it.
“Wonka” doesn’t do anything to change that opinion. Oddly, I think it actually works for him here. He plays Wonka as a supremely self-confident nobody, a kid (literally) fresh off the boat who thinks he can invade the space of London’s finest chocolate makers and best them with his zany concoctions.
Chalamet’s Wonka is a cypher who drops into this world and makes a lot of people happy (and a few very peeved). He himself does not change very much, and remains largely unknowable. By not having to do any heavy lifting, just showing up in marvelous costumes and set-pieces, the actor is allowed to sit back, smile and charm everyone.
I felt some hope for the endeavor after learning the film was directed by Paul King, who made one of the best family films of recent years, “Paddington.” (He also directed its perfectly serviceable but clearly inferior sequel, which for some reason garners maniacal devotion from many.) King wrote the screenplay with Simon Farnaby.
Chalamet also produces a surprisingly decent singing voice. Chalamet will never be confused with a professional singer, but he headlines a few tunes adroitly enough with plenty of emotion. The original songs are by Neil Hannon, with a few callbacks to ones from the original including “Pure Imagination.”
And, of course, the “Oompa Loompa Song.” You’ve probably heard that Hugh Grant turns up as Lofty, one of the tiny orange-skinned, green-haired kind who later become Wonka’s workforce. Here it’s just Lofty, and their relationship is decidedly adversarial. In this iteration, the Oompa Loompas are shrunk down digitally to just eight inches tall.
Grant brings his usual droll charm to the role, and honestly I wanted more of him.
The best musical number by far is “A World of Your Own,” a huge colorful set-piece of Wonka finally opening his own shop, a precursor to the factory seen in the first film.
The plot involves Wonka having spent his early life traveling the seven seas perfecting his chocolate recipes, which he carries around in his traveling case and top hat, both of which boast improbably large storage capacity. Wonka introduces himself as a magician, and much of the film’s action flirts with the supernatural.
He made a promise to his long-dead mamma (Sally Hawkins) to share his chocolate with the world, and London seems the logical place to do it. His primary antagonists are the Chocolate Cartel, the three leading chocolate makers — Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Ficklegruber (Matthew Baynton).
They dole out bribes in the form of chocolate bars, including the clearly addicted chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key), whose waistline suffers for it over the course of the movie. Rowan Atkinson has a bit part as a similarly corrupted clergyman.
Early on Wonka is bamboozled by villainous boarding house proprietress Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), who tricks her guests into onerous small-print contracts and forces them into virtual slave labor in the massive laundry works underneath her house. She’s assisted by her partner and erstwhile lover, crude and lumpish Bleacher (Tom Davis).
Wonka throws in with his fellow captives, including accountant Abacus (Jim Carter), quiet Lottie (Rakhee Thakrar), failed comedian Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher) and sweet Piper (Natasha Rothwell). They work together to sneak out of Scrubbit’s pen on a daily basis and start selling chocolate.
Willy’s primary friendship is with Noodle (Calah Lane), a teen girl who has some dreams of her own. She’s been in Scrubbit’s service the longest, having been dropped down the laundry chute as a babe. Noodle is essentially the Charlie of this story, the sweet, naive youngster who will learn at Wonka’s knee.
They share another one of the film’s musical highlights, a dance with balloons above and about the London zoo. Hearts will soar.
Is “Wonka” a bit superficial and slick? It is. It operates at the level of a children’s fable, stories with just enough Dickensian gravity in them to make the flights of fancy seem attainable.
My kids delighted in the bright colors, puckish humor and the way adults are continually brought down by their own sense of importance. Or, sent flying into the air when they ingest some of Wonka’s gravity-defying hoverchocs.
I was prepared to scowl mightily at this film, like the perpetually displeased Slugworth, who does not even seem to care for candy beyond its ability to garner power and fortune. Instead, I found my smile not slacking, but spreading everlasting.