I really wasn’t in the market for a Willy Wonka prequel, I did not think it sounded like a worthwhile idea, or that this new movie WONKA looked good, as much as I enjoyed director Paul King’s two PADDINGTON movies. So I wasn’t even planning to see it until it turned out to be the first thing showing at the SIFF Cinema Downtown, formerly Cinerama (1963-2020). It has been my theater of record for decades, but after owner Paul Allen died the people running his company wondered “What is there to gain from maintaining a beloved city institution?” and closed it shortly before the pandemic. We all assumed the worst for a couple years, but thankfully the Seattle International Film Festival organization acquired the theater (just not the name) and fuck it, if they were showing WONKA I was gonna see WONKA. I’ve seen so many Star Warses and Batmen and Tarantinos and 70mm retrospectives in there over the past 25 years, waiting in long lines, feeling the excitement of the crowded lobby as they take my ticket, but this is the first time the excitement was only about being in the building.

So I had no expectations for WONKA, but if I had, it would’ve exceeded them. It’s a sweet and funny old fashioned movie musical with a surprising amount of the Roald Dahl spirit. That includes not just inventing new whimsical confectionary innovations that make people hover, sprout green fur or grow the confidence to improve their relationships, not just colorful names and word play, but also a preference for the Dickensian poor over the arrogant rich, and a morbid fascination with ugly awful jerks worthy of the Twits, the Trunchbull, Aunts Sponge and Spiker, etc. When Bleacher (Tom Davis, PREVENGE), the lovelorn henchman of exploitative boarding house owner Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman, LOCKE), first smiled I realized that his craggy rows of teeth really looked like a scribbly Quentin Blake drawing.

Scrubitt and Bleacher’s deal is tricking boarders into debt with preposterous surcharges and forcing them to work in an underground laundry press. (This is also a prequel to Tobe Hooper’s THE MANGLER.) Naive, illiterate young dreamer Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet, HOSTILES) falls into their clutches after arriving on a boat, nimbly hopping across moving vehicles, spinning around lamp posts and singing about his aspirations – musical parkour. He hopes to open a chocolate shop in the Galeries Gourmet, a high end candy district hosting the flagship stores of elite chocolatiers Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph, AEON FLUX), Gerald Prodnose (Matt Lucas, POLAR) and Felix Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton, HEREAFTER), but it turns out a pocketful of silver sovereigns doesn’t last too long in the city. Bleacher offers him shelter for the night, he doesn’t/can’t read the fine print of Mrs. Scrubitt’s comically long contract, and all the sudden he’s an indentured servant. (There’s an infuriating truth under the silliness of this one.)

Only one thing to do: make fanciful candies with his portable foldout factory, sneak out with his orphan colleague Noodle (Calah Lane, THE DAY SHALL COME) and try to sell enough to buy freedom for himself and his co-workers, including accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter, voice of Cogman, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT), failed comic Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher, MARRIAGE STORY), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell, WONDER WOMAN 1984) and Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar, EastEnders).

Too bad the game is rigged. The trio of chocolate industry leaders are in fact a cartel, colluding to fix prices, watering down the chocolate to intentional mediocrity but still overcharging to make sure it can never be bought by the poor (who Fickelgruber hates so much he pukes a little in his mouth whenever “that demographic” is mentioned). They’ve also bribed the police to beat up, arrest or even kill competitors or whistleblowers. Wonka can’t get a shop without selling chocolate first, but he can’t sell chocolate without the cops assaulting or arresting him. And organized religion is involved too! Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) dispenses bribes from his confession booth and hides the cartel’s secret stash of uncut chocolate in a vault beneath the church.

No wonder older Wonka is so cynical. But this this is young Wonka – an eccentric, not a madman. Some might be disappointed that Chalamet’s take on the character lacks the menacing side of Gene Wilder’s. This is not a Wonka that’s always messing with everybody and wildly endangering the kids he doesn’t like. More often he says things (like that a little orange man keeps stealing his chocolate in the middle of the night) and they assume he’s messing with them but he’s actually serious. When they point out that it doesn’t make sense he questions it himself. Unlike later Wonka he doesn’t seem overly concerned with children’s manners, instead aiming a little mischief at assholes like Slugworth, Prodnose and Fickelgruber, who taste his “hoverchocs” and claim they’re terrible before being told that they each contain a small insect that causes the eater to float. “But don’t worry, it’ll be completely unharmed! In about twenty minutes, it’ll get tired and exit through your rear.”

Mel Stuart’s classic WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) is, of course, a musical. The candy store owner sings “The Candy Man,” Mrs. Bucket sings “Cheer Up, Charlie,” Charlie and Grandpa Joe sing “(I’ve Got A) Golden Ticket,” the Oompa Loompas sing variations on their song, and of course Willy Wonka sings “Pure Imagination.” WONKA brings back a version of the Oompa Loompa song, and uses “Pure Imagination” as one of its main themes, but it’s also more of a musical than the original, because they’re full-on choreographed numbers with multiple cast members dancing around and singing back and forth. That’s not always my favorite thing, but it fits Wonka well, and the songs by composer Neil Hannon (singer of the group the Divine Comedy) and screenwriters King and Simon Farnaby (MINDHORN) are as charming and funny as the rest of the movie.

There are many laugh out loud lines and little visual gags like the hand sanitizer dispenser on the portable factory, the pot of steaming hot coffee Wonka literally pulls out of his hat on a cold night, or the chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key, THE PREDATOR) handing out chocolates in a paper sleeve printed “POLICE EVIDENCE.” Unfortunately Key’s character turns into a fat joke (from his chocolate addiction) but before that he kept making me laugh, like when he’s walking through the church and grunts to the choir, “Keep it up, fellas, you sound terrific.”

Of course you wonder how they’re gonna handle the gnome-like Oompa Loompas, who seem possibly enslaved in the original movie, and were pygmies in early editions of the book. King retains the movie’s idea that they’re orange and green gnomes, but makes them doll-sized. Hugh Grant (OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE) plays Lofty, a snobby Oompa Loompa basically stalking Wonka as revenge for unknowingly ruining his life by picking cocoa beans from Loompaland when Lofty was on lookout. He’s a funny character, used sparingly enough and not bothering to specifically match up with Wonka’s Oompa Loompa labor force later on, because who the fuck cares?

Roald Dahl was my favorite author when I was a kid, and I think this captures his spirit in some ways that aren’t obvious. I realized this in the scene where Willy and Noodle break into the zoo to milk a giraffe. It’s the type of goofy narrative swerve he took in some of his books – not the more structured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but more like the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. In that one the elevator flies up to a space hotel, they’re accused of being spies, pretend to be aliens, face an infestation of Vermicious Knids, back on earth his grandparents get turned into babies, all kinds of stuff. Wonka needing to make his recipe special by way of a giraffe’s milk heist (in which he also inadvertently leads a flock of flamingos to freedom) strikes me as one of those little one chapter episodes. I can picture how the giraffe would be drawn and everything. It’s an approach to storytelling you don’t want all the time, but it’s great on occasion. Like candy.

As far as candies go, WONKA is no Everlasting Gobstobber. It’s not a Wonka-level innovation, but it’s more than Slugworthy. I’m not too precious about the Wonka trademarked intellecutal property brand – I love the first movie, but Dahl thought it sucked, and it was literally produced by Quaker Oats to sell a tie-in candy bar. (Seriously – look it up!) If you’re mad at the Warner Bros. corporation for prequelizing it I don’t blame you and wouldn’t try to talk you into seeing it. But I think anybody who’s open to it would have a good chance of enjoying it.

One last thing, not exactly a spoiler, but it’s about the ending, so skip it if you want. I wondered if giving Wonka his friend Noodle would have the unintended consequences of implying that he built his chocolate empire with the collaboration of a Black woman who was never given credit. Then I started to think they were setting up a way for her to inherit one of the other companies. In fact she’s just a good and supportive friend who’s not interested in candy. She’s referred to as a “bookworm” (like Matilda) and at the end the lyrics of “Pure Imagination” refer to her equivalent of a magical chocolate factory – a library. If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.

It seems to me King might be a little wary about further cementing one of the great children’s literary characters as a movie character. So he says See these books? Pick one. Read it. Have fun. Hard to be too mad at that.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 8th, 2024 at 7:09 am and is filed under Reviews, Family, Musical. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “Wonka”

  1. I’m actually surprised by its success, because I keep underestimating how popular Willy Wonka is in the US. Most Germans know only the Tim Burton movie. In fact, even the new AQUAMAN is kicking WONKA’s ass at the box office over here (although it’s doing okay enough here).

  2. I was in the same boat as you – had no plans on enjoying it, took my kid and loved it. It didn’t become an instant classic for me like BARBIE or LEGO MOVIE, but I would put it in their same category of “cynical IP ideas that turned out great.”

  3. It ain’t no “Paddington”!

    I feel like I’m a Scrooge about this. It was cute and painless. The movie has a genial air, and Paul King knows his way around a visual gag – would love to see him tackle an original comedy for adults in the ZAZ vein.

    But the Chalamet kid – I like him, but his singing voice is thin, and I think he fails to capture the wacky madness of this character. I think he’s supposed to be comically driven to make chocolate but there are only a few times where you see Chalamet shift from normal to manic. Wonka has a sustained madness – Wilder played him as disdainful and sarcastic, and Depp played him as a sociopath. Chalamet is going for Doc Brown kook, but only pulls it off in fits and starts.

    Also, I don’t really care for fat jokes, but in regards to the Keegan Michael Key storyline, I’m glad someone properly recognized the toll of all those holiday break sweets and candies. I feel seen, Keegan Michael Key.

  4. I thought this one was utterly delightful. I have zero nostalgia for the Wilder version. I never saw it until I was a teenager and put it on for a kid I was babysitting. I thought, what the fuck was that, when it was over. I was afraid I scarred the kid for life with that spinning chicken head tunnel. And I purposefully avoided the Depp version, which I am still grateful for having done so.

  5. Huh. I avoided this on the fact that it’s more of a musical (not my thing), but Hannon is a good songwriter and Paul King hasn’t missed yet. This review (along with my love for the PADDINGTONs) got me sold on it, though not enough to go seek it out just yet.

    John Oliver did a show recently on actual, real-life chocolate cartels – or, more accurately, cocoa cartels; It’s up on youtube, just look for Last Week Tonight Chocolate; Just the thing if you want to get angry and depressed, maybe to bring you down from watching this.
    Now I think of it, could the chocolatiers from the movie be a jab at that? It’s three big corporations bottlenecking cocoa production and fixing the prices paid out to cocoa farmers… No church involvement, at least none mentioned in the program, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find they’re in it somehow.

  6. Willy Wonka is an interesting case where it seems to be huge in America, but as far as I know it has no cultural relevance here in Finland. I think I remember it played once in the tv when I was. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard it mentioned in the Finnish online cinema space, but it is referenced all the time in English language cinema discussions.

  7. CJ and Timo, I wonder, do you remember hearing of the book in your countries? Is it specifically the movie adaptation that never caught on or is it Roald Dahl in general?

  8. in Finland Roald Dahl is not very popular, although younger generations might know him better. Depp’s Wonka movie was successful and this new adaptation is getting surprisingly good numbers, it only dropped 14% last weekend. It’s nowhere close to Barbie thought – That was a juggernaut.

  9. I do remember hearing the name Roald Dahl when I was a kid, but can’t remember in which context. We never read the books at school and the movies were never on TV. We are an Astrid Lindgren country! Dahl is definitely more obscure-ish over here.

  10. The Wilder movie is amazing. Never watched the Depp version because he creeped me the fuck out, and I’m done with Burton now.

    I went into this with the fam over Xmas not knowing anything about it – but as soon as I saw the cast list in the credits and then Paul King’s name, I instantly relaxed.

    This was really very good. I have a problem with a lot of musicals, but this had a great sense of humor and excellent momentum – the numbers didn’t bring the movie to a screeching halt, and they absolutely contributed to the overall story and characters.

    Great performances all around, with a lot of folks from the British version of GHOSTS, which is a wonderful program that deserves your time and attention.

    I’m not the biggest fan of Chalomey, but between this and DUNE, I’m starting to come around on the little guy. His version of Wonka is definitely a younger, more optimistic version of Wilder’s interpretation – but by the end, I think you can see definite hints of the dark and reclusive genius he’ll become. Sure, he won this time – but he’s starting to see that the world is not a warm and welcoming place to dreamers.

    Just like the PADDINGTON movies, this was a joy to watch and filled with heart. The social satire was unexpected and great. Sure, the original songs aren’t super catchy, but this is a minor nitpick. Very recommended.

    WHERE I AM ON MY VERN JOURNEY: Just finished the comments on Vern’s review of THE CROW on July 17th, 2009. Have added about 50 movies to my “To Watch” list. Nostalgic for classic spam, and loved the Prequel diversion on the TRANSFORMERS 2 review.

  11. Glad to hear the Seattle Cinerama is back in action! I’ll get there for a visit someday.

  12. Roald Dahl was (and is) very big in Ireland and the Gene Wilder film was a regular Christmas viewing in my house growing up (and many others). I thought this looked like a by-the-Numbers IP trawl and the trailers pushing the nostalgia didn’t endear it to me… but my kids wanted to see it and I was pleasantly surprised, in much the same way I was for PADDINGTON (though I didn’t think it was as good as those). My kids (3 and 6) who loved the Gene Wilder one were singing the goddamn Oompa Loompa song for a half hour after we left the cinema so King and co obviously did something right!

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