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‘Wonka’ Review: A Prequel As Deliciously Delightful As Its Predecessors

Wonka Chocolate
via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

Unsurprisingly, the cast and crew roster who brought us the crowd-favourite Paddington films (2014; 2017) have created a rich and sweet story of perseverance, love, and loss that more than does justice to the Gene Wilder 1971 classic from which it takes inspiration. Through music, colour, pithy dialogue, and a decadent amount of (sometimes real) chocolate, Wonka is certainly going to sit amongst the classics of Dahl adaptations.

The film opens with the young and spritely Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arriving in the ‘big city’ of an undisclosed land. The derelict chocolate shop that he dreams of buying is in a beautiful Parisian arcade. At the same time, Mrs Scrubitt (Olivia Colman), the owner of a boarding house that Wonka can’t seem to cut ties with, talks with a heavy Cockney swing reminiscent of Dickensian London. On top of the obstacles provided by the scheming Scrubitt and the shop’s rent price (admittedly favourable by today’s standards), many more dastardly types stand between Wonka and his dream, namely the three leading chocolatiers in the city (played animatedly by Paterson Joseph, Matthew Bayneton and Matt Lucas), who are less than keen with the new competition…

It should be quite obvious that Wonka’s cast is its not-so-secret weapon; with a star-studded line-up of some of the UK’s best comedic actors (as well as a handful of equally amazing US offerings, such as Keegan-Michael Key as the Chief of Police), the Fantasma of the film seems to come as readily from its characters as from its story and CGI. Indeed, director Paul King and his roster had the difficult task of translating the sweet taste of chocolate into a unique sort of visual pleasure, which the contortions of the characters’ faces in response to the delight of Wonka’s chocolatey concoctions more than fulfils.

This isn’t to say the cast comes in clutch for a plot of lesser delight; grounding the magnificent creativity of the characters, King’s visuals, and Neil Hannon’s evocative score is a story with all the same grace and morality of any classic Pixar film. A major driving force of the film’s narrative is Wonka’s relationship with his mother, the inspirator of his dreams, returning to her in the film’s lower moments and finally at the film’s cathartic climax. Moreover, Wonka’s personal experiences are translated beautifully in his fervent attention to chocolate-making, as well as how he interacts with and helps others overcome their problems, the audience included.

Whether it is down to this engaging story or not, one often forgets that this film is a musical. With songs written by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy fame (the ‘bap-bap-bada’ band, for those who don’t know), Wonka’s mixture of up and down-beat songs fuse the serenity of the 1971 original and the more new-age funk of Tim Burton’s 2005 retelling Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, donning lyrics that are at times witty and at others heartfelt. While one may forget that it is a musical until they break into songs, the emotionally rich songs match the colour and life of the film overall, making this break seamless if unexpected.

In a world where we are constantly looking down on reboots, CGI-heavy endeavours, and an overall feeling that creativity is wavering, Wonka is a beacon of hope; while much of it is CG’d (bar one scene involving a VAT of chocolate that couldn’t be faked), the film would doubtlessly be nothing without the behemoth team of creatives behind it, bringing out their inner child to craft a fantastic piece of entertainment like this. One cannot help but be as hopeful as Wonka himself for the future of computerised cinema.

This is the crux of what Wonka achieves as a film very much embedded in a pre-existing culture: with nods to its predecessors, King, his cast, and crew have a lot to live up to. Reimagining songs from the original, using plot points and costumes, and even squeezing Hugh Grant into Oompa-Loompa form stares right down the barrel of the reboot gun. However, despite this onus, Wonka is a delight whose enjoyment comes from what it adds on top of the original; it gives back to what it takes away from the 1971 classic with its unfettered joy and beauty. Throughout the film, the name ‘Willy’ is used sparingly, with everyone calling the young magician ‘Wonka’. King is aware of what he owes to that name and shows, through his creative mastery, that he is grateful for what it has given us.

The only reason I can fathom that somebody wouldn’t be in tears of joy by the end of the film is if they didn’t like chocolate to begin with. But no matter: the delicious denouement we finally unwrap in Paul King’s new film is a sweet treat we can all enjoy.

Wonka is in cinemas from 8th December 2023.


Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief


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