Willy Wonka is back!
By Jacob Thomas Jones
As one hears the opening notes of Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” theme at the start of Paul King’s prequel odyssey, the lyricized feeling of trepidation sets in. Has King bitten off more than he can chew? Do we really need a prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time? Can any living person capture the exuberance, the idiosyncratic energies of Gene Wilder’s wonderful, whacky chocolatier? There have been so many curiosities as to why this film was made in the first place, what its purpose is, and how it might go about achieving that purpose, not to mention the metrics by which that success is measured. Plus, there’s the added pressure of King’s cinematic legacy; can he make something as emotionally rewarding and wonderful as his two Paddington films, whose fans (of which I count myself a devoted one) are so taken with his particular brand of storytelling?
Soon, however, the initial trepidation dissipates, reforming into comfort once Timothée Chalamet’s particular version of our titular protagonist begins to interact with those around him in the film’s opening musical number, “A Hatful of Dreams.” There’s whimsy, there’s fun, there’s an acute sense of what specific brand of comedy pairs well with a story like this, and when best to utilize it, even if some jokes don’t land the same as others. Above all, King fosters a familial sense of togetherness, an understanding that this film is for everyone willing to give it a chance, that no one would be left behind for not following things too closely. There’s no rush to the finish line, nor is there a sense that the film is trying to be any more profound than it needs to be. This a movie for families in every sense of the word, and not one note or line reading betrays that tone.
Inside Chalamet’s performance – as paired with the director’s vision – there are all the great things about the character of Willy Wonka: enthusiasm, ingenuity, compassion, and an emotional connection to his renowned creations (the ingenuity in particular comes into play quite a lot in this story). These are all brought to life with a new and infectious warmth the likes of which only Paul King’s direction has been able to muster in quite this way, operating outside of the medium of animation. There’s a charisma about Chalamet’s Willy Wonka that one can’t help but be swept up in, as evidenced by his first scene selling chocolate just outside the Gallery Gourmet, a crowd of onlookers taken with his energy, buying every bit into the man he says he is. Any doubt one has about Chalamet in the part is quickly gone, and there’s a feeling one gets that no other living actor could have possibly taken on this mantle and done with it what he does, which extends to the film’s musical numbers.
The music itself, while not as memorable or lyrically impressive as one may hope for a musical centered around this eccentric character, informs the story for about the first half of the film, later on mostly retreating as things become more serious and our protagonist reaches the narrative climax. One gets the sense that even if a Best Original Song Oscar nomination is probably out of the cards here, a future stage adaptation is very much not. The songs are fun nonetheless, and in the moment, it does seem as though they could get stuck in one’s head with a couple of viewings of the film.
Where King’s true genius lies, however, is in the side characters he puts into his films, characters with particular quirks and unexpectedly funny personality traits which inform their place in the story being told without overwhelming the moments they share together. The people Willy Wonka meets – while not entirely fully fleshed out – have their own dimensionality, their own purposes, their own fears and nostalgias. (Calah Lane as Noodle is especially notable in this department. It’s her connection with Willy that drives the film’s main line of charm.) This is as much a movie about found family as it is following one’s dreams with that family’s help, and King’s direction is assured enough to never make a false step in that particular element of the story. There are a few performances that overdo it a bit, chiefly in the villains of the film, and in some moments set in the scrub house Willy Wonka stays in while selling chocolate. But, given the target demographic here, and the quirky nature with which the story plays out, it’s far less bothersome than it otherwise would be, and the absurdism sprinkled in lends itself well to some of the film’s running gags. As for Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa character, he is in the film far less than one might expect given how heavily he’s features in the marketing, so if you are someone aching for Hugh Grant musical numbers, that element of the film may let you down a bit.
All in all, Wonka’s strain of comfort film is sure to be a fallback for a new generation, buoyed by wonder, charm, and themes of familial warmth. Paul King ties yet another notch into his victory belt, having successfully pulled off three of these family films in a row, all of which are some of the best films of their years, and all of which are bound to have great replay value, their emotional cores tugging just enough at one’s heart that yes, you may tear up once or twice along the way. (I certainly did.) There’s no longer any doubt: Timothée Chalamet was absolutely the right choice to play this part, and though there is no definitive information on whether this is the beginning of a franchise play or simply a one-off, I would happily welcome more of his Willy Wonka to the silver screen as soon as he is ready to put the coat back on.
I’m giving “Wonka” an 8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Matt Reeves' take on the Caped Crusader is a Triumph of Noir Filmmaking.
Through the many iterations and adaptation of the Caped Crusader’s adventures, the Batman character has always been one of DC’s most beloved characters, both because it’s easier to make media content centered around a non-superpowered person (meaning much less VFX work is necessary) and because he belongs to inarguably the most iconic trilogy of superheroes ever to grace a comic book page, the other two being Superman and Wonder Woman. But that’s not what The Batman is concerned with – its aspirations are closer not to legends, but scandals, not to symbols or ideas, but to the pursuit or revelation of truth, whatever that means for a city as corrupt and seedy as the title character’s hometown of Gotham City. It’s a world and a character ripe for crime capers and film noirs, but for whatever reason, the closest anyone has come to making a straight-up crime drama in a Batman movie before now was in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which wasn’t so much about Gotham or the Batman character as it was about whatever was happening to them as the Joker made his arrival. The Batman is not that movie. Director Matt Reeves’ solution to taking on the Batman story is to start not quite at the middle, not quite at the beginning, and do what should have seemed obvious from the get-go: make it a detective noir story.
The Batman picks up just a few years into Bruce Wayne’s tenure patrolling the Gotham rooftops and alleys, which begins with Robert Pattinson’s voiceover not just explaining what kind of Batman he is, but what kind of story the film is about to tell; it’s one of seediness, corruption, scandal, darkness, and reckoning. Without diving too far into spoiler territory, the opening sequence of the film – just before Pattinson gives us his voiceover – is certainly the darkest a Batman movie has ever had the balls to put right up front, but it’s the nature of what we’re seeing and why we’re seeing it here that lends credence to the idea that while Gotham’s reckoning has come and gone, Batman’s is just beginning. It’s not only a reckoning well-formed and expertly told, but one that could only happen in a noir story like this.
What makes The Batman succeed where other “dark” adaptations failed is all in the eye of the beholder – that’s not me saying it’s a subjective opinion (though it is), but that what this film gets right is on display for all to see. The further we dive into the plotting of the film, the more beautiful it begins to look beyond what we’re shown for shock value or whatever was used in the trailers. Beyond the gorgeous wide shots, the striking color palettes, the makeup work, minimal use of visual effects, we see shadows. We see Batman emerge from them even as the camera has been focused on them for quite some time with nothing in sight. The only other Batman movie to get close to this was Batman v Superman when the dark knight first appears, but that movie never does that again. The Batman, by contrast, does it three or four times over the course of the film, and each time, it works, which makes Gotham’s lower-level criminals fear his being nearby, whether he’s actually there or not, and in turn lets the audience understand why.
Why is the big question posited by The Batman as its mysteries begin to unravel over the course of its three-hour runtime (a runtime which is felt, but not resented). Though it does back out of some of its more challenging material at one or two points, the answers to that question are nonetheless riveting to discover, especially when the script attempts to challenge some more traditionally held views on how the Batman story is meant to go and how the audience has become familiar with certain versions of characters the films rarely, if ever, actually explore. Few films about superheroes can challenge whether they belong on the pedestals we built for them, but fewer still can challenge whether their particular brand of heroism does more harm than good. That’s something usually reserved for anti-heroes, the answers usually falling along the lines of “I’ll go good” or “it doesn’t matter.” In The Batman, it does, especially where Paul Dano’s chilling, calculatory Riddler is concerned. “Unmasking the truth” is Riddler’s obsession, through violence or psychological terror, but we never wonder what it is he’s doing or how – we want to know why.
As Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic score for the film blares through the theater speakers to signal the arrival of the Batmobile with all its cacophonous sound, we’re not obsessed with the epic car chase sequence or the many hand-to-hand fights leading up to this moment, but with what might happen after, since it might give us more answers to “why?” (though the car chase and those action sequences are excellent in practice as well). We’re not here for an action film, we’re here to help solve the mystery of what’s going on with the world’s greatest detective guiding us along the way. It’s the milieu of Gotham that intrigues most; who holds the power? What do they use it for?
The most intriguing of these social elite are the Penguin (Colin Farrell), who owns a nightclub in the city that Zoë Kravitz’s seductive Selina Kyle works at when she’s not parading around the Gotham rooftops herself (though the name “Catwoman” is never actually mentioned), and John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone. Waiting in the wings with naught but a few words to share and a lot of money to move around, these are the guys who make things happen, and the why of it all is what makes them the most interesting secondary villains to watch, even as Riddler remains the most captivating core antagonist since Heath Ledger’s Joker back in 2008 by taking down people exactly those kind of characters, though his focus is centered on Gotham’s social elite.
Reviewing a film like The Batman without discussing some of its more interesting elements in a spoiler-heavy fashion is a tall task – there’s not that much to spoil that anyone who watches the film won’t expect, but in describing how it all fits together and what’s great about it, there are some heavy-spoiler plots I can’t really divulge in a meaningful way. But, in summary, it’s an excellent crime noir with a visionary look, excellent sound design, an instantly iconic score, and performances that aren’t necessarily standouts, but that more than get the job done. Does it really matter if it’s better or worse than The Dark Knight?
I’m giving “The Batman” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.