I’ve long since wanted Lil Timmy Tim, the theater kid from LaGuardia High School, to really find his way into the world of Timothée Chalamet and with Wonka we finally get it. Nope, scratch that, reverse it. Chalamet going back to his roots as a musical performer is what I’ve been waiting for. Sure, he’s done songs on Saturday Night Live and “Ye ye skrt! Hold up, drop that!” really dives into his former rapper persona but he’s never been given a proper, full length platform for his singing, dancing and musical range since he hit megafame until now.
While the trailer artfully dodged that Paddington director Paul King’s film is a musical, it only takes mere seconds for it to establish itself as one, first with the familiar strains of “Pure Imagination” then to Chalamet’s entrance song, “Hatful of Dreams,” on a boat from a faraway land with twelve silver sovereigns in his pocket, the classic purple velvet jacket and a dream to make the best chocolate in the world as he ascends on a small coastal town in search of The Gallery Gourmet in hopes of starting his fortune in honor of his mother (played in brief flashes by Sally Hawkins). Through kindness and mishaps, Wonka’s resources are quickly depleted and, after finding himself without a place to rest his head for the night other than a freezing bench, he’s preyed upon by the huge and imposing Bleacher (a brilliantly scary and funny Tom Davis). The deep-throated giant of a man convinces Wonka to shack up with Mrs. Scrubbit (played to the nines by Olivia Colman), a yellow-toothed, ratchet innkeeper who tricks him into signing a lifelong subservient contract locking you in the basement before you can say read the small print.
It’s here we meet the island of misfit toys Scrubbit has collected, those whom she has duped with said contract: downstairs head of house Abacus Crunch (played, of course, by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), failed comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher), American plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), mute phone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar) and orphan Noodle (a slightly too precocious for her age Calah Lane). Bleacher and Scrubbit (there’s literally a work song called “Scrub Scrub” here) are not much more than knock-offs of Monsieur Thénardier and Madame Thénardier from Les Misérables and for Colman, as versatile and exuberantly funny an actress as we have, it all feels very obvious, like a slightly meaner Miss Hannigan. Maybe a lot meaner, Scrubbit is a pretty nasty piece of work, especially with young Noodle. Wonka takes the girl under his wing, as a bit of an apprentice, a chance to have a friend and respite from back-breaking labor and to be allowed, for once, to dream of something different for her life.
But the watch of Scrubbit’s evil eye doesn’t stop our band of discarded friends from creating elaborate escape plans with Wonka (one of which involves a guard dog running the entire laundry system and looks right out of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) as they attempt to get past the town’s so-called chocolate cartel, a sinister trio of flamboyant and foppish capitalist confectioners led by Slugworth (a delightfully evil Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), who gags when the word ‘poor’ is said, and Prodnose (the incredibly annoying Matt Lucas). In concert with Bleacher, Scrubbit, a complicit priest (a droll Rowan Atkinson), a subterranean sentinel, 500 chocoholic monks and the chocolate-addicted chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key, using a thick New York accent for some reason and who gets larger and larger the more chocolate he consumes), the trio upend Wonka’s big store opening where we find the film’s production design centerpiece by Nathan Crowley, an absolutely gorgeous set of chocolate rivers, giant toadstools, cotton candy clouds, a cherry blossom tree with cherries the size of beach balls and where Chalamet puts on the film’s main song, “A World of Your Own.” It’s the closest we really get to the previous film incarnations and, for anyone who is a fan of them or Roald Dahl’s book, watching with a childlike marvel as I did. But the festivities are cut short as tainted treats begin turning customers into green goblins and hirsute shoppers demanding their money back and bankrupting Wonka once again.
This is probably the best time as any to address the angry little orange man in the room. No, Donald Trump doesn’t make a cameo in Wonka, but we do have a very CGI Hugh Grant playing a (the?) classic Oompa-Loompa. A devilish little imp, just about knee high (significantly smaller than previous film iterations but adhering closer to the book description), Oompa…we’ll just say Oompa is his first name, has been following Wonka across the globe in search of stolen chocolate. You see, when young Willy Wonka and his mother were traversing exotic lands in search of the best cocoa beans, they happened on the island of the Oompa-Loompa and Willy took freely from their harvest as a sleepy Grant lay in slumber instead of guarding their precious supply. This results in the little guy’s expulsion from the island, never to return until he brings back their chocolate. The American/English raiders of island spices and flavors sits right on top of the text here. As an Oompa-Loompa, Grant gets to sing the Oompa-Loompa song (weird pronunciation though) and do a little dance, and even gets the “I said good day, sir!” line said by Wilder in the classic version, which is all well and cute but when it’s just his face it’s pure uncanny valley and oddly synched mouth movements to dialogue. Not quite Polar Express bad but still jarring to say the least.
Even though Wonka is a prequel origin story of the world’s most famous fictional chocolatier, we must look at the films that came before as a reference. Not just for what this film is but also where on the needle Chalamet is playing the titular character. As he’s still young, he’s not jaded and cynical (yet) as Gene Wilder’s bitter savage in the 1971 film but then he’s also not as manically lunatic as Johnny Depp’s Michael Jackson in Neverland Ranch version from 2005 either. But, as Chalamet mentioned in the film’s recent press tour, his touchstone was the Depp version (and why not, he’s 27) and his Wonka does have more in tune with that energy, including flashes of ADHD-coded mania. But what Chalamet has here that his predecessors don’t is glee and optimism. Pure joy, charisma and yes, imagination. That isn’t to cast aspersions to Wilder, who is a brilliant Wonka, it’s just that Chalamet’s Willy is willfully naive, giving him a nonstop level of hope even as the lugubrious and lanky lad is swatted down again and again by the chocolate cartel. With the lack of cynicism at work both with the film and Chalamet’s performance, I couldn’t help but wonder, if this is a prequel to the Wonka we know 20 years from now, when does that cynicism take hold? Should we have seen more of those sewn bitter cocoa seeds of the future? Or am I looking for something that doesn’t need to be there? Am I the cynic? Questions and concerns for a different day.
At just under two hours, Wonka doesn’t overstay its welcome but it also doesn’t inspire as much as it could have. The dozen new songs are serviceable but the moment Chalamet begins his version of “Pure Imagination” they seem pale by comparison. Paul King is a fabulous director and a visual storyteller and some moments in Wonka really shine, feeling on the level of Paddington or Paddington 2. Wonka and Noodle gliding over a river and above the city with a handful of balloons is the most exquisite sequence in the film, bringing the energy and heart of Alfonso Cuarón’s 1995 take on A Little Princess, a place where I think the film tries to find itself but not quite often enough. Perhaps that’s wishing for something it’s not or not needed, a golden ticket that was there all along, as Wonka is full of charm and Chalamet is an absolute delight here.
Warner Bros will release Wonka only in theaters on December 15.