Wonka is ‘relentlessly wacky and over the top’

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By Nicholas BarberFeatures correspondent

Warner Bros Timothee Chalamet in WonkaWarner Bros

Timothee Chalamet in Wonka (Credit: Warner Bros)

Timothée Chalamet stars in a new prequel from the makers of Paddington 2 that explores Willy Wonka’s early years. It’s a seriously sweet treat that is ‘straining at every sinew’ to be the best possible family entertainment, writes Nicholas Barber.

Not many of us have ever wondered about the backstory of Willy Wonka, the wizard-like confectioner from Roald Dahl’s classic 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But, the film industry being what it is, a big-screen prequel was as inevitable as Violet Beauregarde’s decision to try the forbidden chewing gum. And so, just in time for Christmas, we have Wonka: an unfortunate title, but what else were they going to call it?

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The good news is that the film is directed by Paul King, co-written by King and Simon Farnaby, and produced by David Heyman, ie, the team behind Paddington 2. Having made one of the best children’s films of recent times – all right, one of the best films of recent times, children’s or otherwise – they were granted the opportunity, and the budget, to do whatever they wanted with Willy Wonka, and they didn’t hold back.

Anyone without a seriously sweet tooth may feel queasy before the end

The obvious route would have been to recount how Willy built his factory and persuaded the Oompa-Loompas to staff it, but King and Farnaby have veered off in a direction all of their own. In their hands, Wonka is the tale of how the starry-eyed young Willy (Timothée Chalamet) tries to set up a chocolate shop in a fictional city (sort of British, sort of American, sort of mainland European) in a fictional time period (sort of Victorian, sort of mid-20th Century). But his efforts are opposed by Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), the three businessmen mentioned in Dahl’s novel as the rival sweet-makers who stole Wonka’s recipes. The film’s funniest characters, thanks to the actors’ gleeful mispronunciation of half of their dialogue, these three slimy snobs bribe a chocoholic police chief (Keegan-Michael Key in a fat suit) to kick the interloper out of town.

But that’s not all. A remarkable percentage of the running time is taken up by Willy being forced to work in a launderette by two Dickensian grotesques played by Tom Davis and Olivia Colman (who, judging by her performance here, should really have been cast as Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical). There are also subplots in which Willy has to learn to read, borrow a giraffe from a zoo, find the parents of his streetwise sidekick Noodles (Calah Lane), and break into the villains’ lair, which happens to be directly beneath a cathedral. All of these hijinks are heightened by the brightly coloured stripy costumes, the Heath-Robinson inventions, oodles of Dahl-esque wordplay, and a range of clever Berlin cabaret numbers and Broadway show tunes by Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. There’s also a generous helping of syrupy sentimentality. Between this and his two Paddingtons, it’s clear that King likes his films to be more twee than their source novels, so anyone without a seriously sweet tooth may feel queasy before the end.

Overall, then, Wonka seems to be straining every sinew to be the best possible family entertainment at cinemas this Christmas. It throws in everything, kitchen sink included. But what it doesn’t have is one strong, gripping plot to build momentum and raise the pulse rate. It doesn’t convince you that Willy’s back story ever needed to be told. Slotting together bits from Mary Poppins, Sweeney Todd, Oliver Twist, and more besides, it’s less like a finely crafted chocolate gateau than one of those selection boxes that contains several brand-name chocolate bars, all wrapped in garish plastic packaging. As it drifts back and forth between the launderette and the city square, between the present day and mawkish flashbacks to the past, it doesn’t quite get going. And it keeps you waiting for a moment that will make you gasp or laugh out loud, as so much of Paddington 2 did. Chalamet, as talented as he is, is neither a great singer nor a great comedian, and he hasn’t worked out how to make Willy anything beyond a gurning goofball. It’s a relief when Hugh Grant shows up as a snooty, orange-faced Oompa-Loompa called Lofty, but beware, it’s a cameo appearance which includes precious few scenes that aren’t in the trailer.

Wonka

Director: Paul King

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Hugh Grant, Olivia Colman

Run time: 1hr 56m

Release date: 8 December UK, 15 December US

One aspect of the film which stops it being more enjoyable is that it is set in “a world of pure imagination”, as the song from the 1971 film goes. Dahl’s novel bristled with the author’s annoyance at the nuisances of contemporary life, and even Paddington 2 was concerned with the injustices of modern Britain. But just as one scene has Willy being carried over the city by a bunch of helium balloons, the film ignores the gravitational pull of reality. Relentlessly wacky and over-the-top, everything in it is too contrived to care about.

Oddly enough, that even applies to Willy’s creations, which look more like toys than sweets, and which have so many magical properties that their flavour seems irrelevant. It’s a small point, perhaps, but there has to be something wrong with a film about the world’s best chocolate maker if it doesn’t leave you with a craving to scoff some chocolate.

★★★☆☆

Wonka is released on 8 December in the UK and 15 December in the US

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