Film review: Wonka

What a Wonka! Timothée Chalamet’s chocolate origin story is a funny, sweet, wondrous treat…

Film review: Wonka
Nick Ruskell

The provenance of Willy Wonka has always been a guessing game. Such was the point. In Roald Dahl’s 1964 book, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, the eccentric owner and his delicious industry were intentionally given a magician’s secrecy and mystery, inspired by the wonder and excitement of the author’s time at Repton boarding school in the 1930s, when rival chocolate companies Cadbury and Rowntree would ply the schoolboys with sample boxes as part of their market research. With industrial espionage and underhanded tactics to best one another rife from both sides, secrecy around what went on in the enormous factories was paramount to an absurd degree. It only made them endlessly more fascinating. Much like Willy Wonka himself.

Things being what they are now, inevitably the origin stories were going to be examined and, when there were none to pull on, made up, for fresh franchising. In 2005, Johnny Depp turned Gene Wilder’s charismatic weirdo from the 1971 movie into a sugary, humourless Michael Jackson pastiche – a man damaged by a troubled upbringing from his cruel dentist father, trying to find a place in the world. It was rubbish.

Wonka, on the other hand, is brilliant. Timothée Chalamet’s lead is a likeable lad, wide-eyed with hope as he arrives in a new city – a confectioned Gotham that’s all the most chocolate box-looking bits of old New York, Victorian London, Munich and Paris rolled into one, and covered in snow – and eternally optimistic, even as he realises that starting his own chocolate business is going to be harder than he thought. With a top hat full of dreams, a suitcase full of chocolate, he’s got the best, most amazing products in town. He’s also got nowhere near enough money to get by, has been suckered into a massive hotel bill he’s got to work off, and the town’s other chocolate magnates don’t want him on their turf, paying off dodgy coppers to stop him selling on the street.

It’s very funny, and not just because it features half the Peep Show cast, and Paterson Joseph didn’t seem to see any reason not to play slimy businessman Arthur Slugworth as Alan Johnson, to the point where you half expect him to stare menacingly at Wonka and call him a turkey fucker. Olivia Colman’s dastardly hotel owner and con artist Mrs Scrubbitt is all “Ello guvna” panto baddie, and even Big Suze pops up for a moment.

The bits that could be a drag – the musical numbers, Wonka’s relationship with his parents, Matt Lucas – all actually add to its strength. Wonka's origins are far more sweet than Johnny Depp’s version, coming from nothing and wanting to do right by his beloved mum, while the songs – written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon – are as fun and fabulous as anything from the original. And while Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa is incredibly weird, even this isn’t without an amusing charm.

Wonka succeeds in that rarest of things, adding its own story to the work of long-dead authors, because it understands the innocent wonder and magic at the heart of its inspiration. The result is wonderfully fun, funny, heartwarming and filled with colourful imagination. As Christmas blockbusters go, it’s just the (golden) ticket.

Verdict: 4/5

Wonka is released on December 8

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