What is abundantly clear in watching 2023’s new Wonka is just how much love director Paul King of the acclaimed Paddington movies and Warner Bros. Pictures hold for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. That 1971 musical has come a very long way from its theatrical release, when it was coolly received by moviegoers and even author Roald Dahl despite being credited alone with adapting his children’s novel on which it was based. The movie was produced by the Quaker Oats Company and largely intended just to sell candy bars, but director Mel Stuart, leading man Gene Wilder and castmates, musicians Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and an assortment of creative designers ended up making a masterpiece instead.
Like many masterpieces, it eventually came to be recognized as one. In 2014, it was chosen by the Library of Congress as a film worth preservering in the National Film Registry. But long before that, the world had discovered the tremendous worth of the rare live-action family film that got better with age. Warner Bros. was aware of the film’s enduring and ever-growing popularity.
While Paramount originally distributed the film, Warner Bros. inherited it in 1976 when they acquired a majority stake in the company of producer David L. Wolper. Warner would henceforth treat the film as if it were its own; rereleasing it to theaters for its 25th anniversary in 1996 and reuniting the child actors who starred in the film for a high-profile 30th anniversary edition around the peak of DVD collecting.
It seems safe to say that no milestone anniversary will pass without the studio acknowledging it in some way: the fortieth yielded a lavish Blu-ray debut with further cast reunion. Warner Bros. was so enamored by the film’s following that it enlisted Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to put a new stamp on the book, with their Charlie and the Chocolate Factory becoming one of 2005’s biggest blockbusters. I was too old and too devoted to the 1971 movie to find Burton and Depp’s big budget, VFX-heavy interpretation all that charming, but the generation behind me must have because it isn’t too poorly regarded, even today with its oft-collaborating makers having fallen off their respective A-lists.
Shortly after Wilder’s death in 2016, Warner Bros. acquired rights to Dahl’s character and the pieces eventually fell into place, with Harry Potter and Paddington producer David Heyman opting to collaborate for a third time with King.
Live-action family films are one of the easiest classes to take issue with. For every timeless installment of Potter and Paddington, there are a few dozen such movies that talk down to children with hammy acting and inane storytelling. The go-to defense of such works appears to be “well, they’re just for kids.” No one much cares when Brian Levant or Robert Rodriguez squander an opportunity to make a family film that will endure.
Often, success is measured by how many tickets were sold and how many discs, er, downloads were purchased. Kids are smarter than they’re often given credit for, but even the undiscerning ones will eventually figure out if a movie they really liked as a kid isn’t all that good. Nostalgia may be one of the most powerful forces in life, but even it has its limits.
Released at the end of 2014 in its native UK and the beginning of 2015 in the US, Paddington showed that King, a British television veteran who directed all twenty episodes of BBC Three’s “The Mighty Boosh”, was capable of making a high quality feature film with broad entertainment value for viewers of all ages. It was a nice hit for Heyman’s Heyday Films label, StudioCanal, and, North American distributor, The Weinstein Company, shortly before their downfall. Arriving three years later following the same release strategy (and a new post-Weinstein partner in Warner Bros.), Paddington 2 was even better than the first, getting embraced unironically as something of a masterpiece by online film communities.
Wonka may not quite reach the lofty heights of King’s previous two movies, but it shows that his talking bear movies were no fluke.
Young, spry Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives in some unnamed, seemingly European city with a dream in his heart and twelve silver sovereigns in his pocket. The sovereigns disappear before the night is over, but Wonka’s dream of making and selling whimsical confections marches on, drawing a good bit of resistance from a triad of unified chocolatiers. Comprising this corrupt cocoa cartel are Prodnose (Matt Lucas), Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton), and Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph). The three business owners have an understanding with the local police chief (Keegan-Michael Key), whom they pay in chocolate to stomp out any competition.
The eccentric, unproven Wonka is perceived as a genuine competitor, for his exotic and fanciful chocolates draw immediate attention from the public. But before he can have a true go at it, the broke, illiterate would-be candyman is forced into 27 years of servitude over a debt the sketchy Scrubbit (Academy Award winner Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis) claim they’re owed after letting him spend one night free in their seedy laundrette.
There, Wonka is joined by five others who similarly failed to read the fine print and have thus signed away large portions of their life scrubbing clothes and floors. But Wonka is not going to abandon his dream that easily. With help from the young orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Wonka plots a way to get free and launch his business, sharing his gift for exquisite, affordable sweets.
Many of the qualities that distinguished the Paddington movies are again found in abundance here. Wonka is a tentpole, a musical, a big budget brand deposit. In short, it is all the things that we critics tend to bemoan in modern film. But this is no soulless cash grab designed to sell merch and inspire “collabs” with fast food and cosmetic chains. Heyman and King are too committed to making genuinely good cinema to turn this into a big mindless payday. The two approach this daunting undertaking with great respect for their viewers and for the intellectual property in play.
Among the easiest sells in film today are remakes and legacy sequels: taking what has already been proven to work and simply doing it again in a new medium or what looks like a new medium, with more advanced visuals or a more diverse cast. With Wilder’s passing, there really wasn’t much room to pursue a sequel. Does anyone really want to see a middle-aged Charlie not fulfilling Wonka’s forecast of “living happily ever after?” King and his Paddington 2 co-writer/frequent muse Simon Farnaby avoid that route and also spare us simply a third adaptation of Dahl’s novel. It absolutely feels like the right choice and eliminates the obvious comparisons that doom the Burton/Depp movie.
Wilder’s performance is one for the ages and it’s foolhardy to even try to fill his shoes. Chalamet does not go that route, even though he seems fully aware of Wilder’s turn and frequently incorporates little lines and mannerisms from it. Maybe it’s because his Amber Heard divorce drama was still ongoing during production (an issue that got him dropped from Warner’s moribund Fantastic Beasts franchise), but Depp’s Wonka seems to be completely unmentioned and untouched here, which makes for another wise decision.
Chalamet is an interesting casting choice. He’s weirdly beloved by the Internet, having earned its heart emojis largely through artsy adult movies and not mainstream commercial work. He’s done a little bit of that in Dune and Little Women. But his fan following seems as much about his boyish looks and interesting fashion sense as his performances in movies like Call Me By Your Name, Beautiful Boy, and The French Dispatch. Wonka tests his movie star credibility and it also challenges him to show off his stuff. He puts in a spirited effort, getting through some iffy original musical numbers unscathed and doing a respectable job with the comic bits he’s assigned.
It’s probably unfair that Wilder’s performance long existed in a void of sorts for myself and other children who took to his Wonka long before ever seeing him in his Mel Brooks comedies and Richard Pryor buddy movies. In contrast, Chalamet’s work follows many high-profile movies and a public persona you can’t help but be exposed to. That might be a factor in why his performance feels like a calculated performance and not the unpredictable, maniacal force of nature that Wilder’s take on a slightly older version of the character.
On a first viewing, the songs by Joby Talbot and Neil Hannon are not on the same level as the rest of the movie, which flows with wit and imagination. There’s some genuinely impressive production design here, although inevitably the use of digital visual effects are a far cry from the monumental practical achievements of the Wilder film.
The story that King and Farnaby tell has a decent amount of intrigue and it’s bolstered by the bold characters performing it. These include a weak-willed priest played by Rowan Atkinson, an stand-up comedian (Rich Fulcher of “Mighty Boosh”), and that almost endearingly grotesque laundrette crime duo. While there’s a missed opportunity to connect this Slugworth to the bespectacled imposter from the 1971 production, an intriguing enigma who’s been begging for his story to be told for over fifty years now, the results as is are lively and more or less what you’d expect when assinging Roald Dahl book to the guys who made the Paddington movies.
There are a few iffy moments and I’m still coming to terms with the fact that everyone signed off on Keegan Michael Key putting on a fat suit in 2023. But by and large, Wonka is a winner, one that evokes the Wilder movie without exploiting it, standing decidedly on its own feet and offering a loopy, wintry, heart-warming good time with its chocoholic monks, and scene-stealing Hugh Grant as a cad of an Oompa Loompa (who seems to imply we’ve been mispronouncing the name of his people our entire lives).
DVDizzy Top Stories
- The Golden Globes are Sunday. Read up on the nominated films: Oppenheimer, Barbie, The Holdovers, Saltburn, Across the Spider-Verse.
- Now in theaters: The Boys in the Boat, Wonka, Wish, Napoleon, Hunger Games: Songbirds & Snakes, Trolls 3, Next Goal Wins.
- Now on home video, #1 movie of 2023: Barbie 4K reviewed.