Wonka Is a Sweet and Silly Overdose of Musical Whimsy
Turns out, pure imagination is camp.
When Warner Bros. announced a Willy Wonka prequel starring Timothée Chalamet, the response was an overwhelmingly confused “Why?” When it was revealed that Paddington 2 director Paul King would be helming this musical prequel, the response turned from skepticism to intrigue — though the confusion remained. But as soon as the first twinkling notes of Wonka start playing and Chalamet launches into a giddy song about having a dream in his heart and a slowly dwindling supply of coins in his pocket, it’s clear there was no confusion on King’s part about what kind of movie he was making. Wonka is unabashedly, unapologetically a sweet, sentimental musical that embodies the goofiest — and potentially most alienating — parts of the genre.
The bizarre marketing for Wonka, which largely hides the fact that it is, in fact, a musical, speaks to a larger issue: The public’s appetite for earnest, nakedly sentimental movies has long been dwindling. But Wonka exists in a world where cynicism and detached irony don’t exist. From its candy-colored visuals to its dazzling musical numbers, the movie dares you not to get swept up in its rapturous glee.
Wonka begins as its chocolatier arrives in London decades before he becomes the famous, reclusive businessman whose golden ticket would change a poor child’s life in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. After a yearslong adventure across the globe perfecting his recipe, this young Willy is determined to open the best chocolate store in London. But when Willy finds himself indebted to an exploitative innkeeper (a hilariously evil Olivia Colman) and targeted by a nefarious candy crime syndicate, he teams up with a savvy orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane, absolutely charming in her feature debut) to find a more unorthodox way to sell his sweets.
King, who co-wrote the script with Simon Farnaby, was clearly itching to make a musical ever since he got Hugh Grant to perform in bedazzled prison pinstripes in the closing credits of Paddington 2. This eagerness comes through in every single musical sequence of the movie, which King tackles with such outsized delight you can’t help but be a little charmed. The director brings the same excitable energy and eye for style, his camera zipping and soaring through the streets of a cleaned-up Dickensian London like it’s hopped up on sugar.
But it’s the musical sequences where Wonka comes alive. King proves his classic-movie accolades with numbers that evoke Busby Berkeley musicals but aren’t limited by irksome things like physics or reality. Gamely singing catchy original songs composed by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, Chalamet prances on top of rooftops and floats down with his umbrella like a gangly Mary Poppins. Indeed, Chalamet’s Wonka has more in common with the magical nanny than Gene Wilder’s Wonka or even the original eccentric character of Roald Dahl’s story. In many ways, Wonka feels less like a prequel to the 1971 film than it does an original movie made by the Paddington 2 director, who saw an opportunity to make a musical by fixing his original story to a familiar IP.
But it’s the wholehearted embrace of the musical form and all that it allows that lets Wonka gloss over its somewhat half-baked script. The broad beats of Wonka are pretty compelling — it has to do with indentured servitude and criminal conspiracies, and also, strangely, multiple heists — but the majority of the plot mostly follows Wonka figuring out guerilla marketing (in addition to a hilarious subplot in which it’s revealed he can’t read). The script feels cobbled together from too many half-formed ideas, resulting in a movie that’s simultaneously overstuffed and slightly unsatisfying.
Thankfully, the broad, bordering on campy performances make up for it. Colman, doing her best audition for Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, is a standout as the greedy Mrs. Scrubbit, who forces Willy and a slew of other colorful characters to work for free to pay off their debts. Tom Davis is also perfectly boorish as Mrs. Scrubbit’s righthand man. Even Hugh Grant is having a blast as a particularly fancy, standoffish Oompa-Loompa. The only one who feels slightly out of place is Keegan-Michael Key, who plays the chief of police with a sweet tooth and becomes the cartoonishly broad butt of the movie’s unfortunate fat jokes.
But it’s Chalamet’s performance that is the most interesting — and at times, bizarre — part of the movie. The actor wisely plays his Willy Wonka less like a younger, less dark version of Wilder’s chocolatier (because really, who could nail Wilder’s particular brand of goofy and severe?) and more like a Looney Tunes character modeled off Jim Carrey. His physicality screams Ace Ventura, and his biggest pratfalls and oddly emphatic gestures evoke the Grinch. It’s like Chalamet, so cornered into being the serious, brooding actor, let loose all of his wildest proclivities in Wonka until he practically morphs into a cartoon. But Chalamet, arthouse darling that he is, can’t help but let slip some of the wounded sensitivity he’s so perfectly honed in films like Bones and All — his mournful eyes sometimes overtaking the Cheshire grin that he puts on for most of the film. It’s a truly fascinating performance that embodies the film’s heightened aesthetic and oft-diverging tones.
Wonka’s mess of tones — Is it a maudlin Dickens riff or a campy Looney Tunes musical extravaganza? Or is it actually a secret heist movie? — can lead to the film tipping over into too silly, and it often feels like King could’ve used someone to keep his feet on the ground. Once the musical numbers stop two-thirds of the way through the film, Wonka’s flaws become more glaring, and the over-the-top antics become a little more grating. But at the end of the day, Wonka is so unapologetically sweet and sentimental that you can’t help but be charmed. Of course, there will be plenty of people who won’t love the sticky-sweet silliness that the movie offers, but Wonka is a confectionary delight that is hard to resist.
Wonka opens in theaters Dec. 15.
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