Wonka review – Timothée Chalamet’s Chocolate Factory prequel is a superbly sweet treat

<span>Photograph: Jaap Buittendijk/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures</span>
Photograph: Jaap Buittendijk/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

On paper, it is the worst possible idea: a new musical-prequel origin myth for Willy Wonka, the reclusive top-hatted chocolatier from Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who decides in the onset of middle age to offer five Golden Tickets at random for kids to look round his secret confectionery paradise, staffed by a slave labour workforce of Oompa-Loompas. But in the hands of Brit-cinema’s new kings of comedy, writer Simon Farnaby and writer-director Paul King (who have already worked their magic on Paddington), this pre-Wonka is an absolute Christmas treat; it’s spectacular, imaginative, sweet-natured and funny.

Timothée Chalamet is charm itself as the young Wonka who comes to prewar Paris as a young man after a quaintly conceived life on the ocean wave, determined to make his fortune with the chocolate recipes invented by his mum (played by Sally Hawkins). He’s a chocolate disruptor, shaking up the stagnant chocolate business with his new chocolatey ideas; he faces cruelty and imprisonment but wins out with the help of new friends.

Chalamet is elfin and puckish, unworldly and possessed of a Paddingtonian innocence and charm – and a nice singing voice – without being insufferable. This very slender figure doesn’t actually do much chocolate-eating himself, incidentally, clearly preferring not to get high on his own supply. He pursues his cocoa-based destiny with heroism, finally confronting the villains’ awful threat of Death by Chocolate. What are Farnaby and King going to do next, I wonder? A prequel for CS Lewis’s White Witch, as a little girl wandering saucer-eyed around a “Delight” sweetmeat factory in Turkey?

Hugh Grant of course comes close to pinching the whole thing as the original Oompa-Loompa, the keeper of the chocolate flame, digitally reduced to 12 inches high; he is haughty and entitled and given to explaining himself in a kind of tribal-musical display (“I can’t stop now, I’ve gone into the dance”). Olivia Colman and Tom Davis are the fierce Sweeney Todd-ish couple who oppress poor Wonka; there is also great stuff from Matt Lucas, Paterson Joseph and Matthew Baynton as the Boggis-Bunce-and-Bean-type trio of creepy chocolate overlords who resent Wonka’s wonderful new creations. Rowan Atkinson adds to his career-gallery of inscrutable priests; Calah Lane is tremendous as Willy’s pal Noodle; Jim Carter is sweetly beguiling as Wonka’s wise ally and forensic accountant Abacus Crunch; Keegan-Michael Key triggers big laughs as the chocoholic chief of police; and Phil Wang gets a dance number with Chalamet.

But how about what we already knew of grownup Wonka? What put the sea salt into the chocolate bar? What happened to him as a young man to turn him into the somewhat ambiguous, even sinister adult figure with a streak of Dahlian cruelty, who is content to punish greedy, beastly, sweet-gobbling children with an awful fate? (In truth, Wonka is not so very far from another of Dahl’s creations, the candy-wielding Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) Well, this film doesn’t answer that question and behaves as if it doesn’t exist. Wonka is just really nice. End of story.

Perhaps Farnaby and King will make Wonka 2, in which something happens to sour our young hero, just the tiniest bit, turning him against some of his young sweet-toothed customer base. I hope not as, despite the extra spoonful sugar in the mix, I have to say … whisper it … I enjoyed this more than either of the two earlier filmed versions, with Gene Wilder in 1971 and Johnny Depp in 2005. It supplies the chocolate-endorphins.

• Wonka is released on 8 December in the UK, 14 December in Australia and on 15 December in the US.