It sounds damning with faint praise (and, honestly, perhaps it is) but one thing that Paul King’s Wonka cannot be accused of is failing to live up to its description: it very much is a prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (yes, I mean the 1971 movie, not the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) made by the man behind Paddington 2. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends, I suspect, on the individual viewer.
Personally, I think that Wonka is a fine piece of cinematic confectionary: it’s unlikely to change anyone’s life — although the sight of Tom Davis (another Paddington 2 veteran) in lederhosen might be thrilling to many — but it’s a perfectly entertaining movie that makes some smart choices in getting from Point A to Point B, even if it’s rarely surprising on that journey.
In fact, for me, the closest things to surprises the movie provided were both related to the marketing that came before its arrival. Firstly, thankfully, Hugh Grant’s Oompa-Loompa is far less of a presence in the finished feature than the trailers would suggest. Not that he’s not a delightfully sarcastic, dismissive presence, but Grant’s seeming disdain for proceedings is an ingredient best used sparingly in a movie as knowingly saccharine and sentimental as this. Secondly, the movie is far more of a musical than its promotion made it appear, with much of the opening exposition provided via songs (written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon) that mix appropriately awkward wordplay with an orchestral swoop that anyone familiar with The Divine Comedy will recognize. (Personally, I like the rhyme of “chocolate” and “sock-a-lets,” with the latter being a bastardization of sockets, as in “eye sockets,” but I’m corny that way.)
Otherwise, the movie feels very much like a cinematic pantomime as much as anything else, and as such requires the audience’s goodwill to fully work: those looking for something to dislike can find it — Timothée Chalamet is arguably too weak a presence to convince as the charismatic Wonka, even in an origin story, and the less said about the “joke” about Keegan Michael-Key’s cop getting fatter throughout the film is… off-key, shall we say politely? — but there’s much to enjoy and appreciate, and like King’s Paddington movies, there’s a kindness and sincerity on display that requires a surrender of cynicism to flourish, fully.
In some meta-textual manner, Wonka turns out to be a movie that works on the same kind of logic as Willy’s candies in the original source material: those who approach it with an open heart and mind will find themselves having a good time; those who want to find fault or are burdened down with adult expectations and demands might find themselves wheeled off by Oompa-Loompas unhappy and worse for the experience. Buy a golden ticket to a world of pure imagination at your own risk, perhaps.