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‘Wonka’ review: Can Timothée Chalamet win over the haters? Leave a comment


The naysayers were wrong. Wonka is wonderful. 

Now, admittedly, some cynicism around Wonka was warranted. Initially sold as a prequel to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novels (and the movie adaptations), this seemed an unneeded origin story in the vein of such groan-worthy affairs as Solo, Oz the Great and Powerful, or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The casting of Timothée Chalamet also earned derision, since the stylish it boy is known chiefly for moody, dramatic roles. As vocal detractors chirped on X (formerly Twitter), if you’re going moody, young Wonka, why not cast someone who actually looks like moody, young Gene Wilder, like The Bear‘s Jeremy Allen White? 

Things only got more vicious as promos for Wonka began to drop. The first image of Chalamet in costume spurred comparisons to Gonzo from The Muppet Christmas Carol. (Valid. But that Muppet is a style icon worth taking fashion cues from!) Next came the trailer, where Chalamet’s jaunty attitude and curious accent spurred outright mockery. At the time, I defended these creative choices, arguing that the young actor was daring to delve into the vision of the movie’s director. And that director was the brilliantly bouncy mind that gave us Paddington and Paddington 2

In Paul King, I trusted. And finally having seen Wonka (three times at this point), I can tell you my faith in him was justified. Because Wonka is a wondrous and weird gem sure to be treasured for generations to come. 

Wonka shouldn’t work, but it does. 

Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka, Calah Lane as Noodle in "Wonka."

Credit: Jaap Buittendijk / Warner Bros.

Early social media reactions from the first critics’ screenings laid out a preposterous plotline: After traveling the world for seven years as a scrubby ship’s cook, Willy Wonka (Chalamet) lands in a bustling metropolis where he dreams of making his mark on the illustrious Gallery Gourmet, selling his unique chocolate confections — and at a price where everyone can enjoy them! However, standing in his way is a corrupt police chief (Keegan-Michael Key), a vicious chocolate cartel (Paterson Joseph, Mathew Baynton, and Matt Lucas), and a conniving landlady (Academy Award-winner Olivia Colman), the latter of whom has exploited Wonka’s illiteracy to turn him into an indentured servant, destined to work in her wash house for 27 years. 

The plotline is outrageous — and also involves an intelligent-beyond-her-years orphan called Noodle (Calah Lane, holding her own), a giraffe named Abigail, a swarm of chocoholic monks led by a dastardly vicar (Rowan Atkinson), and a thieving Oompa Loompa (a divine Hugh Grant). But the narrative’s audaciousness is a feature, not a glitch. 

Wonka enters a land that is grim and hopeless, with the greedy mistreating the needy religiously. With a suitcase stocked with outlandish ingredients — like liquid sunshine and the bittersweet tears of a Russian clown — and a tattered top hat that serves like Mary Poppins’ bottomless purse, this magician/chocolatier not only brings sweetness into the lives of those poor souls around him, but also hope for something more — and song! Yes, in case you missed it in the marketing, Wonka is a musical. And unlike Disney’s woesome misfire Wish, these numbers will have you singing along in no time. 

Timothée Chalamet is absolutely marvelous as Willy Wonka. 

Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka, Hugh Grant as Lofty in "Wonka."

Credit: Jaap Buittendijk / Warner Bros.

The American ingendude has shot to superstardom playing teen boys who are mesmerizing, vulnerable, and or incredibly cool in movies like Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, and Little Women. Here, Chalamet shows us his theater kid side, giving himself over to an earnestness that may cause some to cringe. But from the movie’s opening moments, where Wonka comes into view with a song on his lips, he is positively lovely, like he’s got some bottled sunshine of his own. 

This Wonka is not the disillusioned shut-in from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This Wonka is a wide-eyed dreamer, who thinks a pocketful of change and a headful of dreams are all he needs. And while the cold realities of this city hit so fast they freeze his hot cocoa, Wonka remains resilient. 

Giddy and genuine, Chalamet is a prince of musical theater, whether dancing with a rousing ensemble or waltzing with a hat and coat on a walking stick as a stand-in partner. His voice is pretty and spirit-lifting as he sings silly rhymes of “noodle” and “doodle” or reaching into your “pockelet” to buy some Wonka chocolate. Like Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, Chalamet is the Greatest Showman, commanding attention and wonder through his unguarded commitment to a larger-than-life character, who would just as easily chat with a giraffe and bargain with an Oompa Loompa as make squalling monkey sounds should the need arise. 

Considering Chalamet made his mark in movies and on the red carpet by being boyishly chic and endlessly charming, it’s surprising to see him surrender the cool demeanor this way. But there’s a blissful sincerity in Wonka that rewards his daring. And so, here is a new Wonka, distinctive and remarkable, and sure to spur a whole new generation of crushes, as his whimsical adventures and endless warmth are the stuff of daydreams. 

Wonka has one of the best comedy ensembles of the year. 

Promo poster for Wonka in collage

Credit: Warner Bros.

Like Paddington 2, Wonka was scripted by King and Simon Farnaby, who both have storied careers in British television. As such, this mirthful movie is positively stuffed with familiar faces from series like Peep Show (Colman, Joseph, and Isy Suttie), Ghosts (Farnaby, Bayton, and Charlotte Ritchie), The Mighty Boosh (Rich Fulcher), Mr. Bean (Atkinson), Downton Abbey (Jim Carter), and The Windsors (Ellie White). 

This wealth of talent brings a sharp comedic timing to moments big and small, from the conspiring chocolate cartel’s burlesque-like number about having a sweet tooth to a security guard getting tipsy on Wonka’s liquor-laced “Big Night Out” truffle. As he was on Peep Show, Joseph is a particularly dastardly antagonist, relishing the power he has over his incessantly jolly adversary with a broad, wicked smile. Bayton is a daffy delight as a choco-baron who is so posh that the word “poor” makes him gag. Colman, whose range extends so far the James Webb space telescope can’t keep up with her, relishes every moment of playing a Dickensian villain, who garishly pines for aristocratic splendor while subjecting others to squalor. Yet the best of a very strong batch of supporting players is Tom Davis. 

Playing Bleacher, the burly sidekick to Colman’s scheming Mrs. Scrubbit, Davis is like a Wallace and Gromit character come to life. He has a voice low and growling but with a mischievous flair. Wearing false teeth, he bears a broken smile that is its own red flag. But when he’s not silently threatening the washroom servants, he’s hitting on Scrubbit with moves cliched yet sprightly comical. It’s not just the flashy garb he chooses to wear to seduce his cohort, it’s the physical humor of how Davis saunters around in them, convincingly feeling himself and unapologetically showcasing how any of us can look a fool for love. As he did as T-Bone the prisoner in Paddington 2, Davis came to steal scenes and be an absolute hoot. And he accomplishes both in Wonka

Wonka is one of the best movies of the year. 

Much like Barbie, on paper Wonka may have sounded like a horrid idea — an obvious cash grab meant to capitalize on audiences’ long-established love of the source IP. King and Farnaby do include familiar Wonka iconography, from his top hat and familiar flute to a few moves snatched from Wilder and a dazzling chocolate/candy shop that feels like the prototype for Harper Goff‘s impeccable design of the fantastic factory in the original movie. Amid the new songs from Neil Hannon there are some familiar themes, like Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” and the Oompa Loompa’s well-known tune. But King and Farnaby have built something fresh and dulcet from these inspiration points, rather than creating a soulless bauble full of allusions. (Cough Wish, cough cough). 

Chalamet as Wonka was an inspired choice, not only because he has the music in him, but also because there’s a jolting joy in discovering this new side to his talents and range, as he gamely goes for goofy. Likewise, casting Grant as an Oompa Loompa might have seemed a bizarre call. But the snooty British air that Grant put on like a well-tailored blazer in Paddington 2 fits him just as well painted orange, topped with a green wig, and shrunk down by CGI. Far from the enigmatic finger-waggers of the Wilder movie, his Lofty is a figure of nose-in-air pretension, making it all the more hilarious that this dapper gentleman is chasing down a nomadic chocolatier for candy. 

The whole cast adds to this choir of song and comedy, bringing mighty emotion to victories and losses alike. King and Farnaby’s script is so full of jokes that I caught new ones with each rewatch. And the songs have lingered with me, bringing a smile to my face with each remembered phrase. (“Sweet Tooth” is devilishly catchy.) 

In a year full of daring and dynamic cinema, this late entry is nonetheless a standout. Full of humor, heart, madcap music, and fantastic fun, Wonka is an absolute delight, sure to entertain the whole family — even the curmudgeons snarking at its existence. 

Wonka opens in theaters Dec. 15. 


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