Writer Roald Dahl might be done and dusted, but his most singular 1964 creation, Willem “Willy” Wonka continues to not just survive, but thrive across multiple media (e.g., book, film, audio). IP is forever, especially when Dahl’s estate and Warner Bros., the original production company behind 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, are both involved and involved both were in Wonka’s latest big-screen incarnation, Wonka. Overflowing with eye-popping, ultra-colorful production design – clearly inspired by the architecture of late 19th/early 20th-century European cities, wall-to-wall song-and-dance routines, and a charming, A-for-effort performance from Timothée Chalamet as the title character, Wonka qualifies as mostly pleasant, mostly inoffensive family-oriented entertainment.
Co-written and directed by Paul King (Paddington I and II), Wonka finds the title character returning “home” after seven years abroad, joyfully singing about his personal and professional dreams on a merchant ship as it enters the harbor of an unnamed city. The city Wonka discovers contains the usual assortment of haves and have-nots, but Wonka brushes past the city’s Dickensian dichotomies and enters the city’s central square and market. Within minutes, a series of encounters with the city’s denizens leaves him with just one sovereign (out of twelve) and nowhere to sleep for the night except a chilly park bench. A few missteps or drawbacks, though, are far from enough to curb Wonka’s enthusiasm: He’s a dreamer par excellence, an inventor, an entrepreneur, and most importantly, a chocolatier of refined taste and even more refined confections.
Wonka’s ambition puts the twenty-something title character into the crosshairs of the city’s chocolate-centered elite, a cartel led by familiar sounding names, Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton). Together, the villainous trio, helped along by a corrupt, chocolate-addicted Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key), keep potential rivals for the city’s chocolate-consuming population in check (or worse, depending on the severity of the perceived threat). Wonka’s entry into the chocolate market makes him a marked man, one that the chocolate cartel will do anything, up to and including permanently removing Wonka’s soul from his body, to stop.
Before the chocolate cartel can put their plans into action, however, Wonka finds himself the semi-permanent guest of Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), a hotel owner with a lucrative side gig in the wash-and-fold business, and Mr. Bleacher (Tom Davis), her besotted henchman. Forced to work as an indentured servant alongside Mrs. Scrubbit’s charge, Noodle (Calah Lane), and a handful of permanent hotel guests, including Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), and Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher), Wonka finds his borderline toxic positivity tested to the breaking point and beyond.
The remainder of Wonka’s running time centers on a heist-adjacent plot as Wonka and his fecund imagination conjure up vast washing-and-folding machinery while the others sleep, effectively freeing them from the everyday drudgery of working in Mrs. Scrubbit’s laundry service. Wonka’s plan, of course, involves chocolate, but not just any chocolate wrapped in tinfoil. Pace Dahl’s original incarnation, Wonka’s confections contain all manner of unexplained, sometimes inexplicable wonders. Some give eaters the temporary power of flight, while others take eaters through an entire range of memory-based emotions.
After much emphatic singing and expressive dancing by Wonka and the other players, along with the frequent overuse of the word “imagination” to counter the film’s occasionally downbeat tone, Wonka eventually coalesces around a heist. Said heist involves a life-or-death development involving tens of thousands of gallons of liquid chocolate stored in vast underground vats, and, of course, a pivotal role for a minor, soon-to-be-key character in Wonka’s future, Lofty (Hugh Grant, mildly amusing), an eight-inch-tall, orange-skinned Oompa Loompa on a personal mission to obtain justice, restorative or redistributive, for Wonka’s perceived crimes and misdemeanors against the Oompa Loompas. It’s an intriguing idea, especially as it helps to counter the oft-cited issue of the Oompa Loompas’ professional relationship with the title character (i.e., partners or like Wonka here, indentured servants).
Not surprisingly for a prequel that desperately wants to remind audiences of its 1971 predecessor, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s classic song, “Pure Imagination,” receives multiple (re)plays throughout. Seven new songs composed by Neil Hannon, the lead singer and songwriter for the Divine Comedy, an Irish rock-pop group, round out the film’s repertoire, though none match the Bricusse-Newley song as an earworm. Likewise, Joby Talbot’s score proves to be more than serviceable, though that also means it’s rarely memorable and all too often, the opposite.
When the end credits painlessly arrive after roughly two slightly busy hours, Wonka (the movie, again) has delivered a more than passable, lighter-than-light, mostly inoffensive, perfectly forgettable piece of IP-exploiting, studio-branded entertainment. Chalamet proves himself capable of leading a musical fantasy (albeit with at least one caveat involving his vocal range), Paul King equally capable of navigating the pluses and minuses associated with big-budget, high-profile brand extensions like Wonka, and families on the other side of the screen will, if nothing else, feel like the money and time spent at their local multiplex won’t be a total waste.
Wonka opens Friday, December 15th, via Warner Bros.