‘I’ ON CULTURE
I had not expected to see the new movie Wonka. December is usually the month for interesting films and, frankly, I had not been wildly blown away by the first of the films, the one with Gene Wilder. But this is 2023, and good films for grownups are rather thin on the ground, and my two grandsons were pretty insistent. So they dragged me there. And I had a really good time.
This is not a remake of the old film. It is actually an origins movie. How did Willy Wonka become so rich and famous? In the original, he was already there, the top chocolate maker in the world. And, how charming, the richest guy is not some tech weirdo but the maker of a product that most of us can enjoy. And it is a musical! That I had not known until I watched characters break into what were pretty good songs.
The film begins with Willy (Timothée Chalamet) on a ship coming to a new land, singing about his goal to realize his dreams. He has already begun to wear part of his famous costume, although the purple coat and famous magical hat come a bit later. But he is crazy about chocolate. With only a small bit of money, he goes after his “hatful of dreams.”
Of course, he is in trouble right away after moving into the boarding house of Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) as soon as he signs a crazy, very long contract. Then he winds up coming up against the Chocolate Cartel. The leaders are the top chocolatiers: Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Felix Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton) and Gerald Prodnose (Matt Lucas). The police arrest Willy for “disrupting the trade of other businesses.”
He soon finds out that Mrs. Scrubitt’s contract forces him into hard labor for about 27 years, since she follows the ideas of the “keeper of the house” in Les Misérables and charges him for using the soap and the stairs. A young girl also stuck there called Noodle (Calah Lane) finds out that Willy can’t read.
Wonka is sent down the dirty laundry chute to work with other unhappy unfortunates, stuck there because the chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key) is a chocolate addict. He also meets Lofty (Hugh Grant), an Oompa-Loompa, given the name because he’s taller than most of his peers, who also has a grievance since Willy stole cocoa that Lofty was supposed to guard.
Wonka gets Noodle and then the other laundry workers to sell his chocolate on the street, but the police and the head priest Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson) are with the bad guys. And they have nasty plans. But since this is a movie for kids, those plans never work out.
The film belongs more to director Paul King than original writer Roald Dahl. King, who directed Paddington Bear, keeps everything light. The dark places are there, but in some ways it’s more like watching the Roadrunner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote works hard but always loses. And we love it. The same here. Children will love it, and adults will enjoy being with them.
Chalamet is a charming, slightly daffy, even somewhat magical Wonka. I have seen him be brilliant in different types of films (he is the lead actor in Dune 2 coming in a few months) and always seems charming. Grant is more than a bit weird as Lofty, but perhaps that is what he wanted. All of the performances are strong, probably because King got top performers to take smaller, very interesting roles. Even nicer, the cast is diverse but does not make a fuss about it… the way things should be.
The performances are strong, and the songs are good. Not great, but they work within the framework of the production. I enjoyed the kind of steampunk design of the settings by Nathan Crowley; lots of strange tech way ahead of its time. Lindy Hemming did fantastic (and fantastical) costumes.
All in all, the film is a treat. Chances are it could become a children’s classic, and quite likely a holiday one. It deserves it. It convinced me to go back and look at the original film. So, if you have kids, this is a great film to see on a trip to the movies. And even without children, it is one you can enjoy.