By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
In 1971, comedian Gene Wilder starred as candy maker Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, an adaption of the children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. Despite being known as a classic nowadays, the film didn’t garner universal acclaim and struggled financially. Over the years, however, Wilder’s wacky yet endearing turn as the mysterious and whimsical Wonka became iconic. As much as studios wanted to continue or retell this story with the character of Willy Wonka though, Wilder’s success and audience’s association with the actor and the Chocolate Factory made any potential new films a particular challenge.
Tim Burton came along and made his reboot, this time adopting the novel’s actual name in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which predictably stars Johnny Depp in the lead role. Burton’s underrated adaption expanded upon the lore of Willy Wonka, giving him more of a backstory and character arc than the original film ever did. Johnny Depp’s bizarre, weird, and sometimes creepy performance was a point of divisiveness among audiences and critics at the time, but the movie still gained enough attention to be labeled as a success.
Willy Wonka was first shown on screen in 1971, and his backstory was told in more detail by Tim Burton decades later, which makes telling a new story with this character a difficult prospect. Warner Bros. Discovery’s answer to this dilemma is a prequel titled Wonka, which shows how the title character became a successful chocolate maker in the first place. Taking on the reigns of this iconic role is Timothée Chalamet, an Award-winning actor that brings a prestige to the film despite his young age. Rather than telling the story of young children winning the golden ticket raffle to come to the Chocolate Factory, Wonka focuses on the character’s early days as he seeks to upset the sweet treat-establishment and make a name for himself in the business. Chalamet’s Wonka undergoes some Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens-esque challenges with a London based hotel (or immoral makeshift orphanage), as well as fighting the three chocolatiers that won’t allow any new competition to come into the market.
Just as the previous two films do, Wonka displays a level of heightened adventure that makes the story feel like a fantasy throughout. The fantastical elements don’t just come from the mind-bending chocolate that Wonka is making, as the entire film ends up feeling like a fairy tale of sorts. This is one of Wonka’s biggest strengths, as it successfully captures the style of the book and the original movie while still telling a new and unique story. A lot of this has to do with the writing and directing of Paul King, who previously helmed the critically acclaimed Paddington movies. King brings over the emotional, heightened nature of Paddington into Wonka, and it fits extremely well.
Part of the style of this new movie is the musical elements, with Timothée Chalamet in particular breaking out into song at several points in Wonka. The musical aspect of Wonka is also one of its most successful elements, as the catchy nature of the songs is sure to excite fans of this genre while also holding the interests of audiences who aren’t quite as enthralled by the character’s abruptly singing in the middle of a scene. The new songs are catchy and fit with the natural style and tone of the Willy Wonka world, and the film does a good job of incorporating the classic tunes as well. Without spoilers, arguably the most famous musical number from the original film is saved for the end of Wonka, in what ends up being a touching and emotional moment. This also goes to show the way in which the creators of Wonka continue the story of this character while honoring and respecting the original versions throughout.
Wonka has a successful ensemble of characters, most of whom join together to escape the prison of the hotel and help Wonka achieve his dream of becoming a successful chocolate maker. Chalamet leads the line here, and does well-enough throughout. He doesn’t have the charisma of Wilder or Depp, and he doesn’t seem quire as natural or comfortable in the role as the previous two performers. The moments that Chalamet is most successful in are the intimate scenes, such as when he bonds with a fellow prisoner in the boarding rooms of the hotel and shows the young child chocolate for the first time, as well as opening up about his late mother. Meanwhile, for the scenes in which character is meant to be loud and eye-catching in, Chalamet is… just fine. The quality of the film around him is enough to carry Chalamet’s somewhat awkward performance, and while it might be a bridge too far to say he was miscast as Willy Wonka, he certainly doesn’t invoke the character as much as Wilder or Depp do.
Wonka is a surprisingly enjoyable prequel that is a great family watch over the holiday season. Timothée Chalamet is fine in the title role, but the success of the film comes mainly from the fantastical world that’s been recreated for this story, as well as the jolly atmosphere and prevailing heart throughout. Overlooking some offensive and outdated fat-shaming jokes, Wonka is a fitting prequel / reimagining of the Dahl novel and Wilder classic.