'Wonka': A sugar-sweet story that's missing some bite

CALAH Lane, left, and Timothée Chalamet in Wonka. | Jaap Buittendijk Warner Bros Pictures

CALAH Lane, left, and Timothée Chalamet in Wonka. | Jaap Buittendijk Warner Bros Pictures

Published Dec 21, 2023


By Michael O'Sullivan

IT IS difficult ‒ nay, impossible ‒ to imagine that the Willy Wonka of the prequel Wonka, a simperingly sweet musical origin story starring Timothée Chalamet as the aspiring chocolatier made famous by writer Roald Dahl, ever matures into the adult version of the character we saw in 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp, or 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder.

There was a weirdness, even a slightly sinister creepiness, to the characters played by Depp and Wilder (also apparent in Dahl's 1964 book) that is wholly, utterly lacking in this cloying new version from film-maker Paul King.

Even King's Paddington and Paddington 2, two delightful live-action comedies inspired by the children's book series about the misadventures of a talking British teddy bear in a duffle coat, have more edge.

Most of the problem is the rendering of this Willy, who, under Chalamet's one-dimensional interpretation of King's strenuously saccharine screenplay, co-written with Simon Farnaby, is a character so purely benevolent and selfless that he makes Jesus, Gandhi and the Buddha look like a bunch of hooligans.

Sure, Willy wants to open a chocolate shop and make money from his wares ‒ he's a capitalist ‒ but the ultimate goal is to spread sweetness through the land, not hoard wealth.

What land that might be is not clear. The setting of the film looks like somewhere in Europe, and most characters have English accents.

FROM left, Timothée Chalamet, Mathew Baynton, Paterson Joseph and Matt Lucas in Wonka. | Warner Bros Pictures

But Willy ‒ whose mother (Sally Hawkins) is British ‒ speaks with an American accent, as do the evil chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key) and Willy's lovable urchin sidekick, Noodle (Calah Lane).

It's ironic, in a movie that doesn't seem to respect its own source material, that Noodle is a character who is said to love books.

There is a bit of darkness here: Willy, a magician turned candy man after working seven years as a ship's cook, is thwarted in his effort to establish himself by the local Chocolate Cartel (Paterson Joseph, Mathew Baynton and Matt Lucas), three rival chocolatiers who will stop at nothing ‒ poison, intimidation, bribery and murder ‒ to derail Willy's dreams.

Willy, on the other hand, is virtue on a stick: generous, kind and patient. (Okay, so he's a little full of himself, but he does walk on water, and he can create chocolate that makes people fly.)

He's just not terribly tasty or even interesting, in a movie that cries out for something to sink our teeth into.

Even Hugh Grant, delightful in the role of an Oompa-Loompa ‒ a miniature creature seeking restitution from Willy for the cocoa beans our hero has harvested without permission ‒ is underused, entering the film late and then hardly given any screen time.

Only Olivia Colman and Tom Davis, as grifters who trick Willy into indentured servitude, make much of an impression. But in their case, it's for overacting.

There is a modicum of charm in the screenplay's winking, self-referential humour, a hallmark of the Paddington films that seems out of place in a story that might have helped us to understand how Willy became the more complicated character we've seen in earlier versions of his story: kindly but kooky, judgemental and snappish at times, and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.

Incidentally, there was already a kind of origin story in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which showed the character to be the damaged son of an abusive father (Christopher Lee).

Here, Willy's pure-spun sugar, with none of the complex ingredients that make a movie soar: relatability, humanity, foibles.

"Will I crash and burn or go up like rocket?" Willy croons at the beginning of the film, as he dances across the screen, not a care in the world. I heard those words mere minutes into the movie, and thought to myself: “Uh-oh.“

Wonka is showing at cinemas nationwide.