Every good thing in this world started with a dream.
Wonka is a 2023 musical fantasy film directed by Paul King, written by Simon Faranby and Paul King, produced by Village Roadshow Pictures, The Roald Dahl Story Company, Heyday Films, and Domain Entertainment, and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. It is based off of Roald Dahl's 1964 children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The film stars Timothée Chalamet and Calah Lane. This is the third film in the Willy Wonka franchise. It was preceded by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
"Mark my words. This is going to be the greatest chocolate shop the world has ever seen." - Willy Wonka
At the Galleries Gourmet, a place dominated by the rich and powerful chocolate industry, a young chocolatier named Willy Wonka comes in with nothing besides his incredible chocolate-making ability and begins to create the best chocolate in the world.
For context, I have incredible nostalgia for Willy Wonka. I used to read the Roald Dahl books religiously, so I have read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I've seen both the movies. I played Mike Teavee in a community theater production of the musical in middle school. I love this weird, wonky, chocolate-filled world, so I went into this movie with hesitant excitement, because I'm never sure about prequels.
And this film was exactly what I was hoping it would be. It is delightful, light-hearted family fun. Timothée Chalamet is a highlight here. He continues to prove himself to be an incredibly diverse actor. Chalamet has mostly done dramatic roles, but he's definitely had a few minor comedic roles, and he lets out his inner Wonka with this energetic performance that is both very different from Gene Wilder's and somewhat similar. I feel like Chalamet and Wilder's performances are as comparable as Ewan McGregor and Alec Guiness in Star Wars. Chalamet puts his own spin on the character while also incorporating elements of Wilder's whackiness, and it really works.
The comparison between Chalamet and Wilder actually feels very much like an accurate comparison for the entire film. Wonka differentiates itself vastly from the 1971 original. It's more light-hearted and absurd with a slightly more sentimental, emotional edge to it. But it also feels like it incorporates elements of the original beyond just the obvious homages. The production design and characters all feel like they belong in the original while also fitting into this story. The production crew described Wonka as a "companion piece" to the 1971 film, and I feel like that is very much what it is.
I also enjoyed the music for the most part. The song that really sticks out most is the hilarious villain song Sweet Tooth, but the rest of the songs are good, too. I saw the film with one of my friends, and he said that all of the songs kind of sounded the same, and I think there is some definite truth to that, but they all sound good. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about Chalamet as a singer, but the music was enjoyable enough.
Paul King's direction here was also fabulous. I feel like his work behind the camera is going a bit unnoticed, but I think he deserves a lot of credit. He brings this vibrant chocolate world to life with enigmatic characters, incredible production design, and gorgeous colors. The whole film feels very high-energy but it also able to pause and reflect on the more sentimental moments, and I think that is a direct result of some masterful directing from Paul King.
The movie also knows it is a family film, so it plays into that. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as well as Tim Burton's 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are both weirdly creepy. Now, to be fair, the story of Dahl's original novel does involve four children being "taught a lesson" by meeting horrifying ends in a chocolate factory (no, they don't die if you haven't seen it), so that does create some darkness, but both of those films really lean into the darkness and make Willy Wonka a freaky, weird guy. This film eliminates most of the darkness and lets the audience just enjoy the fun, fantastical world with a likable, charming version of Willy Wonka that is not suspicious/creepy at all.
I think this movie definitely has a few problems that hold it back from greatness.
The world of Willy Wonka is obviously ridiculous and cartoonish. It's always been that. But I feel like the original (and even the 2005 film) have made fun of the ridiculousness in clever ways. Wonka has the absurdity, but is not as clever about it. Our main villains are the so-called "chocolate cartel", a group of three powerful chocolate makers that are jealous of Wonka. They are intentionally cartoonish, but I didn't find them very funny or cleverly absurd. A lot of the side characters are like that, actually. They are ridiculous, but not that funny.
This relates to my previous point, but I don't find the movie to be very funny. It's fun, but the jokes don't really land. They have running gags in the film that just are not that good. For example, Keegan-Michael Key's character gets fatter every time he gets on screen. That's not that funny. It's just weird. It feels like the writers knew how to write a charming, sentimental, fun film that pays homage to the original...but they just were not funny.
And, although I appreciate the homages and "companion piece" element to the film, I think it gets a little out of hand in the end. Although the film is technically a prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, most of the movie is its own thing. Yes, it's about Wonka trying to start a chocolate shop, but the factory isn't really mentioned, and, with the exception of the Oompa-Loompa, none of the characters from the original are in it. The last five minutes, however, squishes in an almost fan service-y ending that feels very unnatural and forced.
While Wonka is incredibly fun and charming, it does feel like it is missing a key thing: the Roald Dahl touch. Roald Dahl has a very distinct style of storytelling. He builds these wonky, whimsical worlds that are incredibly unique. The best comparison I have to him is Dr. Seuss, but Dahl is different than even him. Wonka does not feel like a Roald Dahl movie. It's weird and fun, but not in the specific way that Roald Dahl stories are. It just does not capture the exact vibe of films like the original or Matilda or James and the Giant Peach. Maybe that's because this story isn't written by Roald Dahl. Maybe it's the modern Hollywood vibe that the film gives off. But it is missing the Dahl magic a little bit, and you can feel that throughout.
Final Thoughts and Score
Wonka is a charming, fun companion piece to the original that has energy, solid musical numbers, and a good emotional core.
I will go Savory here. Age range is 6+.
SWEET N' SOUR SCALE
Sweet (Great) Savory (Good) Sour (Bad)
Fun Factor: 8/10
Directed by Paul King
Rated PG for some violence, mild language, thematic elements
Released on December 15, 2023
1 hour and 56 minutes
Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka
Calah Lane as Noodle
Keegan-Michael Key as The Chief of Police
Patterson Joseph as Arthur Slugworth
Matt Lucas as Gerald Prodnose
Matthew Baynton as Felix Fickelgruber
Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Wonka
Rowan Atkinson as Father Julius
Jim Carter as Abacus Crunch
Natasha Rothwell as Piper Benz
Olivia Colman as Mrs. Scrubitt
Hugh Grant as Lofty
Rich Fulcher as Larry Chucklesworth
Rakhee Thakrar as Lottie Bell
Tom Davis as Bleacher Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Officer Affable
Simon Farnaby as Basil
Ellie White as Gwennie