Wonka Review

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Anton Chigurh, Lou Bloom, Willy Wonka, what do these three characters all have in common? None of them need to have their backstories fleshed out. While those first two appear prequel proof, a character as marketable as Mr. Wonka was bound to get an origin story in today’s IP-driven world. Wonka might not be a necessary film, but that doesn’t stop the people involved from throwing everything they have into the hat. With the Paddington films, director Paul King easily could’ve phoned it in. Instead, he made two funny, exhilarating, and timeless classics that entertained all ages. Although Wonka doesn’t reach the heights of the Paddington movies, it is a testament to what happens when you enlist a passionate filmmaker rather than a director for hire.

Having a charismatic lead doesn’t hurt either. Gene Wilder will always be the definitive Willy Wonka, but Timothée Chalamet is an improvement from Johnny Depp. Chalamet’s Wonka arrives in a European town aspiring to open a chocolate shop. Maybe someday, he’ll even expand his operation with a factory. For now, Wonka finds himself at the mercy of a chocolate cartel, a corrupt police chief with a sweet tooth, and a loathsome laundromat owner. Wonka manages to befriend a few others down on their luck, including an orphan girl who goes by Noodle (Calah Lane). Life may be sour now. Once the world tastes his chocolate, though, it’ll be Wonka’s golden ticket to the big time.

Much of what made the Paddington films work is on display in Wonka. King has produced another visually stimulating picture with production design alluring enough to eat. After Paddington 2 ended with an extravagant dance number, it was only a matter of time until King went all-in on a musical. While the songs in Wonka can’t compete with Pure Imagination, Neil Hannon still cooks up several hummable tunes and Joby Talbot injects the film with a whimsical score. King has a knack for casting character actors who know how to make the most of every second, from Jim Carter, to Keegan-Michael Key, to Olivia Colman. Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa is an odd choice, although his presence scores more laughs than expected.

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While there’s much to admire in Wonka, the film’s biggest drawback is Wonka himself. This isn’t a knock against Chalamet, who brings a lot of charm to his performance. It’s Wonka’s characterization that can feel off. There are two sides to Willy Wonka: cynical and sincere. From the moment he rolled on screen, Wilder perfected both sides, keeping the audience guessing. Chalamet gets the sincerity down, but this Wonka lacks a cynical edge. That’s not to say that the film isn’t without cynical humor. Most of it comes courtesy of the supporting cast, however. Wonka feels more like a wide-eyed, naïve kid… kind of like Paddington.

Although many of King’s strengths translate well to this material, the Wonka character is the one area where the film should’ve felt less like a Paddington movie. Still, if you like Paddington and have a fondness for the world Roald Dahl created, Wonka should be your cup of hot chocolate. The film deserves credit for not being another straightforward retelling of Dahl’s book. The occasional reference to the 1971 classic aside, King does a respectable job of leaving his distinct signature. Even if it’s not as perennial as an Everlasting Gobstopper, Wonka leaves a sweet taste in your mouth.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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