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
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.