Sweetly conventional confectionary in Wonka

Director: Paul King Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Colman, Tom Davis, Paterson Joseph, Hugh Grant Running Time: 116 minutes

The Willy Wonka of the Chocolate Factory film as played by the late, great Gene Wilder had bitter notes that would pair perfectly today with a Fair-Trade cacao confection. Odd and acerbic, Wilder’s wiry wit cut through the sweetness and silliness of the film around him, a perfect fit for Roald Dahl’s blend of whimsical misery. A family favourite was born in the blend, a film that makes for perfect Christmas season viewing to this day.

Family films today rarely have room for such cynicism and strangeness. Typically we get uncommitted distance, characters raising their eyebrows and pointing out their own plot holes, or else unblinking sincerity. One of the better directors at delivering the latter is Paul King, whose Paddington films proved to be surprise hits, sweet without being saccharine, a wry sense of humour and an old-fashioned air that gets older viewers onboard. He’s a sensible selection for this material; a fresh take on the Wonka character a clear run at the Christmas box office and a star vehicle to add a softer side to Timothee Chalamet’s resume, but there are pros and cons to his approach.

Wonka plays its hand right from the start as Timmy launches immediately into song, Wonka arriving at an Ur-pre-war European city with a smile on his face, a dream in his heart, and a dwindling supply of sovereigns in his pocket. It’s earnest and old school, the music as written by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon going for a similar style to 60s showtunes like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Doctor Dolittle. Timmy can carry a tune and despite usually playing more broody or moody characters, he unquestionably has the gee whiz rizz to fit this take on Wonka. It gets a little uncanny in some line readings that aim for the unsettling strangeness of Johnny Depp’s version, but mostly he’s naïve, affable, and entertaining – very much like if Paddington himself went into the chocolatier business.

Wonka’s aims of disrupting the local chocolate industry draw the ire of a corrupt trio of local sweet shop owners, who conspire to control the city’s sweet supply by any means necessary. They bribe the police to rough Timmy up, all while he manages to find his ambitions stifled by stumbling into indentured servitude (which presumably gave him the idea to do the same to the Oompa Loompas later in life).

The villains do give the film a nicely nasty streak. Olivia Colman plays the cruel Mrs. Scrubbit with panto perfection alongside Tom Davis. Paterson Joseph, best known as Peep Show’s Johnson, brings that character’s sociopathic capitalist comedy to Slugworth, alongside Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton as the crooked chocolate cabal, the group seducing chief of police Keegan-Michael Key via chocolate and song. Key’s character drags the film down however with groanworthy fat jokes, which stand out all the more by the film’s utter unwillingness otherwise to lean into Dahl’s mean streak. Willy’s assistant Noodle is well played by young Calah Lane, but her character is bland and her storyline a cliched diversion. Outside of the baddies there’s an overly sanitised air, less the warm wit of King’s previous films and more the four-quadrant bland pandering of films like The Greatest Showman. This film’s Wonka sells chocolate on the sly, relying on sleight of hand and hijinked heists, but that fun idea is a punch pulled.

The songs, like the star, are charming, inoffensive and perhaps unmemorable, without any real showstoppers in the set. Hugh Grant doesn’t get enough to do as an Oompa Loompa with his own agenda, probably because the actor couldn’t bear to be on set too long. Timmy swings and sings around a meticulously designed playset and has the star power to bring audiences along for the ride. King has put together a likely hit for the season, but will it stand the test of time?

Roald Dahl was a great author but a miserable misanthrope. Willy Wonka was a genius in the sweet department who happily bumped off children. Wonka has smoothed those edges away, a sweet and shiny, tempered result. It retains the magic of its inspiration, but not the madness, which keeps it from being an everlasting success.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Where to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

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