Film Review: Wonka (2023)

With more than a little debt to the aesthetics of Paddington, Timothée Chalamet leads musical romp Wonka with great charm

“‘Cause there’s a hard rain gonna fall
Humbugs, gumdrops, and aniseed balls”

I’m not anyone was particularly crying out for an origin story for Roald Dahl’s iconic chocolatier Willy Wonka but well if I be darned if Wonka ain’t a deliciously sweet treat. Paul King has incredible recent form with his wildly successful Paddington films and he directs his own screenplay, co-written with Simon Farnaby from his own story, very much operating in the same aesthetic of childlike wonder, imaginative storytelling and not being afraid of more than just a little darkness.

As we’re dealing with Wonka as a young man here, freshly arrived in a city that could be London, Paris, Vienna or a mix of all three, Timothée Chalamet is able to imbue with a charming enthusiasm that scarcely acknowledges the sardonic drawl that other, older versions of this character might be so well known for. He’s been adventuring in far-off lands and now wants to set up a chocolate shop in the illustrious surroundings of the Galeries Gourmet – he’s just got a few obstacles to surmount.

There’s the chocolate cartel (Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton in top-hat twirling style) who want no competition; there’s his landlady Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman in malevolent form) who traps him into forced labour in her laundry; surprisingly there’s his illiteracy too, meaning he missed the small print that leads to the before point, though fellow prisoner and chirpy orphan Noodle is on hand to provide lessons (a wonderfully self-assured Calah Lane really impressing here).

Guided by the spirit of his late mother (Sally Hawkins only just able to pull these scenes back from painful cheesiness) and both helped and hindered by a mysterious small orange figure (a dryly humourous Hugh Grant), there’s chocolate-flavoured capers rather than any real sense of jeopardy which feels less Dahl-inspired than one might have expected but in the context of this feelgood film, feels right as we’re very much in the world of song-and-dance spectacular.

A number of musical set pieces have real charm about them, Chalamet’s clear and supple voice is an unexpected pleasure and Neil Hannon’s original songs allow him to be characterful and charismatic as he springs sweet-loaded surprises upon the townsfolk. As with the musical, there’s also use of some of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s iconic songs from the 1971 film. It works well for ‘Oompa Loompa’ but whilst I could never grow tired of hearing ‘Pure Imagination’, it’s mildly ironic that no-one seems to have been able to come up with a different song for Wonka. Still, it provides the perfect nostalgic note for a really rather charming film.

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