The director Paul King, the magician behind the two Paddington movies and now Wonka, has a formula. Sweet-natured, sweet-toothed dreamers arrive in a strange land where they are forced to overcome adversity by employing, among other things, their passion and skill for creating sugar-based foodstuffs. King’s trademark box-of-delights storytelling approach combines showy, gymnastically agile editing and a disarmingly handmade, artisanal quality to the production design. At times, his films can venture a little too far towards a quirky, Etsy shop aesthetic, but for the most part, the alchemic King’s approach continues to create gold. Wonka is an effervescent pleasure – an endlessly, intricately charming treasure trove of a movie. And overall, Timothée Chalamet’s fresh-faced take on the central character – bringing a puckish innocence and spry, light-footed energy to one of the most famously jaded misanthropes in children’s literature – works rather well.
An origin story that traces the formative period in the early life of confectioner extraordinaire Willy Wonka, the film dances its way through some unexpectedly dark themes. Foremost of these is the fact that the illiterate Willy, so preoccupied with chocolate that he neglected to learn to read, fails to comprehend some crucial small print and finds himself trafficked into forced labour in a laundry, run by the leering Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis). But there he meets a band of allies, all in hock to the treacherous Scrubbit, and forms a firm friendship with resourceful orphan Noodle (Calah Lane).
Take the cruelty out of one element of a Dahl story, and it’s apt to pop up elsewhere, whac-a-mole style
Willy has ambitions that extend far beyond the sweating walls of the laundry, however, and with his suitcase-sized chocolate laboratory, he is able to continue his candy-crafting endeavours even while imprisoned in a garret. He soon devises an ingenious escape and causes quite a stir with a direct marketing exercise involving levitating candies. Willy’s moment of triumph backfires, though, and he incurs the wrath of the chocolate cartel (Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton). The three bonbon dons meet Willy’s chocolate-making genius with a spot of equally creative corporate malfeasance. There’s one final problem. A small orange man who describes himself as an Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant, great fun) keeps turning up and stealing Willy’s stash of chocolate-making ingredients.
While King added claws and genuine peril to the bumbling cuddliness of Paddington (2014) – Nicole Kidman’s scalpel-wielding, fetish gear-clad vivisectionist remains one of the most authentically terrifying characters ever to sneak into a PG movie – here he takes the opposite approach, softening the savagery and toning down the bracing malice of Wonka as a character. The Chalamet version of the chocolatier showman has plenty of Paddington-esque positivity, but lacks the quixotic cruelty of Gene Wilder’s foppish cynic (1971). And fortunately, he also has very little in common with Johnny Depp’s take on the character, in Tim Burton’s 2005 film, which reimagined Wonka as a putty-faced sociopath who looks like his chocolate tastes of hand sanitiser. In contrast, Chalamet’s half-formed boy-man is an adorably perky optimist who is only ever a heel click away from a full song and dance number (more of which later).
This shift certainly makes Wonka more relatable, but distances him from the spite and spikiness of Roald Dahl’s writing. Take the cruelty out of one element of a Dahl story, however, and it’s apt to pop up elsewhere, whac-a-mole style. I’m no great fan of fat jokes, but if nothing else, a rather mean running gag about the ever-increasing girth of a chocolate-addicted corrupt cop (Keegan-Michael Key) certainly felt true to the spirit of Dahl.
It’s worth confirming at this point that Wonka is very much a musical, a fact that the trailer goes to great lengths to conceal. And on the strength of a single viewing, the music – original songs by Neil Hannon (the singer-songwriter of the Divine Comedy), score by Joby Talbot – holds up reasonably well. There are no immediate ear-grabbing bangers, but no precision-moulded, wipe-clean, production-line pap either. But where the film excels is in the wildly inventive musical set pieces. A central sequence in which Wonka launches a guerrilla sweet-distribution operation is a giddily ingenious sugar rush that uses every last square inch of the densely detailed set. And a rooftop aerial helium balloon dance sends our spirits soaring skywards, along with the cast members.