In his Paddington movies, Paul King folded animation and live action together into delightful all-ages adventures, selling a message of community and acceptance with spry wit and disarming sweetness, not to mention Ben Whishaw’s impeccable voice work, imbuing the gentle ursine protagonist with genuine heart. Depending on your appetite for sugary excess, you might embrace the director’s Wonka as more of the same. Or you might find the qualities that distinguished his previous hits get steamrolled here by strained whimsy, an aggressive charm that wears you down rather than lifts you up.
Mercifully, we’re a long way from the garish nightmare of Tim Burton’s 2005 film of the Roald Dahl novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Timothée Chalamet as the young Willy Wonka is nothing like Johnny Depp’s creepy take on the role. But Chalamet has two settings here — he’s either beaming with almost manic exuberance, as if willing us all to have fun, or pining away for the late mother (Sally Hawkins) who promised to be by his side when he realized his dreams. Transitions between those dual modes are often marked by jaunty song-and-dance interludes.
The Bottom Line Bad for your teeth.
Release date: Friday, Dec. 15
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Natasha Rothwell, Rich Fulcher, Rakhee Thakrar, Tom Davis, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Director: Paul King
Screenwriters: Simon Farnaby, Paul King, based on characters created by Roald Dahl
Rated PG, 1 hour 56 minutes
Late in the film, Chalamet’s young Wonka croons the lovely song “Pure Imagination” — popularized by Gene Wilder in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory — while conjuring the magical manufacturing plant out of thin air. But that CG rendering just underscores the movie’s cloying artificiality. It’s an empty chocolate box.
People who saw the Wilder version as kids are fanatical in their love for it, and maybe they’ll be happily caught up in this messily plotted prequel, scripted by Paddington 2 co-writer Simon Farnaby with King. But for this reviewer, the pretty, candy-colored Old World Europe created here, while impressive in terms of design detail, has all the appeal of those unwatchable Fantastic Beasts films. The vibe of the movie sits in the general Mary Poppins area, but the light touch that made King’s previous two features so pleasurable is in short supply.
Farnaby and King’s screenplay strays outside Dahl’s original story to imagine what came before, while remaining more or less true to the author’s thematic playground of pure-hearted children triumphing over wicked adults.
The child in this case is a young man, yearning to purvey the unique chocolate-making skills he learned from his mother but obstructed at every turn by a crooked cartel of well-heeled chocolatiers, Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), who welcome no competition to their high-priced goods for sale in the swanky Galeries Gourmet. In addition to the threat of Wonka’s extraordinarily delectable chocolates, there’s also the fact that he wants to make them an egalitarian treat, affordable to everyone. Fickelgruber typifies the cartel’s attitude toward that aim by gagging any time he hears the word “poor.” Which might have been funny if the evil trio hadn’t been pushed to such gratingly arch extremes.
Grotesque villains were a Dahl staple, but because three ruthless capitalists who’ll stop at nothing to protect their monopoly from a talented upstart apparently weren’t enough, the script throws in a coarse innkeeper, Mrs. Scrubit (Olivia Colman), with a mouthful of yellowed teeth right out of The Simpsons’ “Big Book of British Smiles.” Be prepared to see leering closeups of those misshapen chompers too many times to count.
In tandem with her grubby henchman, Bleacher (Tom Davis), Mrs. Scrubit runs a scam duping insolvent guests into years of unpaid labor in her laundry business. It’s in that workhouse that Wonka meets the fellow downtrodden who will be accomplices in his plan to outsmart the cartel and open his own emporium in the Galeries Gourmet. They include former accountant, Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), telephone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell) and wannabe comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher).
Willy’s key ally, however, is Noodle (Calah Lane), a smart, resourceful girl dropped down the laundry chute as an infant and “taken in” by Mrs. Scrubit. That was supposedly an act of kindness, but in reality, Noodle has been forced into a life of indentured servitude. Young newcomer Lane gives arguably the movie’s most appealing performance, in part because she’s virtually the only one who doesn’t spend the entire time strenuously mugging. I swear, I physically recoiled every time the supercilious cartel reappeared.
Also gorging on the scenery is Keegan-Michael Key as the Chief of Police, on the take from the cartel and accepting payment in chocolate, which causes his girth to keep expanding in a tiresome running fat joke. Rowan Atkinson is a more welcome presence, even if he’s doing his familiar shtick as a similarly corrupt priest. And Hugh Grant is doing, well, Hugh Grant, albeit in miniaturized form, with orange skin and green hair as a dandified Oompa Loompa who keeps stealing Willy’s chocolates until he can be roped into helping out.
In addition to “Pure Imagination,” another of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s songs from the 1971 movie, “Oompa Loompa,” resurfaces via Grant, with a reprise over the end credits that wraps up loose plot strands. The serviceable new numbers are by Neil Hannon, frontman of The Divine Comedy, though there’s little of the sophisticated lyrical wit of the Northern Irish orchestral pop band’s best work. The catchiest of the new songs is “A World of Your Own,” nicely sung by Chalamet.
King’s claim that his star has a voice like Bing Crosby’s is a stretch, but while Chalamet’s vocals are on the thin side, they’re tuneful enough. He does better with dance duties, executing choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s moves — from vigorous tap and soft-shoe to more athletic turns — with nimble flair and a joy that the actor’s fans will likely find contagious.
I just wish I found the performance more infectious overall. But so much wide-eyed optimism becomes wearying, and the wistful memories of Willy’s mother, while beautifully visualized in photo flipbook style, are more sentimental than affecting.
Even if it’s plausible that the young Wonka might not have developed the arrogant authoritarian side of the character as conceived by Dahl, Willy feels neutered here, stripped of any edge that might have made him interesting. His magical ability to make chocolates levitate or to turn a cavernous, dilapidated retail space into a cornucopia of wonders just seem like the kind of standard-issue CG doodling you see in TV commercials. Young audiences may well be enchanted, but I’m sad to report I found the whole confection sickly sweet and hopelessly twee.
A number of gifted actors are either misused or wasted. Chief among them is Colman, playing a shrill, unscrupulous slattern with misplaced airs of snobbery, which surface in a stupid subplot that has her tricked into believing Bleacher is Bavarian aristocracy. Key gets to drown in latex but not much else. And Rothwell has almost nothing to do, continuing the conundrum of movies not knowing how to utilize an actor so brilliantly showcased in TV roles on Insecure and The White Lotus.
King is in his element with caper comedy, so there’s buoyancy in the chaotic plotting as Wonka and his workhouse cronies use an underground network of storm drains to escape the laundry and evade their increasingly murderous pursuers. And production designer Mark Everson and the effects team have come up with a bunch of inventive Rube Goldbergian contraptions that spring from Wonka’s ingenious mind, among them an elaborate trap to catch Grant’s Oompa Loompa in his nocturnal choc thievery. I especially liked Willy’s suitcase, opening up to reveal a fully stocked cabinet of exotic ingredients and cooking paraphernalia.
Lindy Hemming’s eccentric costumes, like the sets, are awash in color; Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is suitably lively; and the playful score by one-time Divine Comedy arranger and keyboardist Joby Talbert is smoothly integrated with the songs. Early social media reactions to the film, including from respected critics, have been mostly enthusiastic. But the very fussy chocolate wrapper left my sweet tooth untantalized.