December 13, 2023
Have you ever wanted to know the origin story of Willy Wonka? No? Well too bad! The good chaps on the Warner Bros. executive board needed a four-quadrant product to help boost the Q4 2023 earnings report and good ol’ Willy was the character on the board that the dart landed on. It was either him or Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf. But don’t worry too much, as you might actually enjoy this piece of commerce, as writer/director Paul King of the Paddington films brings enough whimsical charm to make it all go down as smoothly as the titular character’s chocolate.
Debts, ledgers, profits, margins, fine print, cartels, bribes, and monopolies. These are the words you would be familiar with finding in a film about The Great Recession or about drug trafficking, not a film about Willy Wonka. But the candy on the island where Willy (Timothée Chalamet) sets his sights on making his fortune might as well be drugs, as it rules over the economy and everyday life of its citizens. The decadent Galeries Gourmet is where you go to sell your chocolate. But you need a shop to legally sell it, and the three main chocolatiers/tycoons - Slugworth, Prodnose, and Fickelgruber - have an iron-clad grip on the trade through police influence and price fixing. “The greedy beat the needy” is the motto of the town’s poor, whom Willy joins when he’s swindled into indentured servitude by the mean laundry woman Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman).
This all sounds a bit depressing, doesn’t it? There’s a clear Dickensian feel to everything, with King and co-writer Simon Farnaby never shying away from the darkness that often appears in Roald Dahl’s stories. Willy is an orphan just like Noodle (Calah Lane), a young girl Mrs. Scrubbit took in as a baby and forced to be her eternal personal servant. The one thing Willy has that sets him apart is his optimism, which he often lets out through some jovial songs. The marketing department at WB may not have wanted you to know that this was a musical, but King and Chalamet are more than ready to knock your socks off through the power of showmanship. The songs are not all hits as Chalamet acts like a kid on a high school stage, speaking out to the crowd with glee. His version of Willy veers a little closer to Johnny Depp than Gene Wilder, packing enough mystery into his abilities that you sometimes wonder if he’s even human.
Paddington alums Sally Hawkins and Hugh Grant followed King over here, with the former playing Wonka’s deceased mother and the latter an Oompa Loompa. It’s hard to look away from Grant as the four-foot-tall green-haired creature on account of his inherent charm and the awkwardness of his face being superimposed on a CG creation. It’s only about two steps better than what Corey Stoll got as MODOK in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania back in February. There’s also a bevy of likable supporting players like Keegan-Michael Key, Jim Carter, and Rowan Atkinson as Father Julius, the leader of a group of corrupt monks who guard the stolen chocolate for the cartel.
Paul King’s Wonka is possibly the best version of such a depressingly deep-rooted concept. It’s harmless, regularly fun, and offers a little something for both kids and adults. It doesn’t have the rewatchability of the 1971 original, but it’s got a lot more than Tim Burton’s crazed (and sometimes underappreciated) 2005 remake.