As heartwarming as a box of chocolate, Wonka is a delightful film, perfect for the Christmas holidays with its musical numbers and dreamy visuals.
“Every good thing in this world started with a dream, so you hold on to yours,” is Wonka’s greatest message. It is perhaps the one line that describes the film and its main character best: a dreamer in a dreamless city where even daydreaming is subject to penalty – a three shilling penalty to be exact. Paul King’s film had the ambitious and complicated task of following up on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” adaptations by telling the origin story of its most iconic and memorable character. As someone who is often sceptical of prequel or origin story films, even I was entranced by the magic of Wonka.
Wonka focuses on a young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) as he arrives in a big city to pursue the dream that he shared with his mother (Sally Hawkins): selling chocolate. But when he arrives in the city after years of researching and working on his chocolate-making skills, Willy finds ruthless competition in the three chocolate-makers in the city Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Flicklegruber (Mathew Baynton). As the film goes on, we follow Willy’s adventures in making his dream come true and becoming the chocolate genius we know and love, with the help of a group of friends found in unlikely places.
Wonka is at its very best during the musical numbers, which play a big part in creating the fantasy atmosphere of the film. They also convey the enchanting power of Willy Wonka’s chocolate, which often kicks off the magic and the music in the film. In many ways, the musical numbers go back to the tradition of sound stage musicals with their colourful scenery and mystical elements. King creates a fantastical story that takes us back to the magical realism of the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film.
The extravagant and colourful visuals also reminded me of the original film in the best way possible. Wonka chooses to paint its story with every colour of the rainbow, introducing us to Willy Wonka’s world: as he tells us, the world we live in may be unfair, but we have the power to change it. I love how the film is not afraid to create magic visually as well, with impressive special effects that allow it to create a whimsical and magical world where both children and adults can get lost, in true King’s fashion.
I particularly liked how Wonka is set in an unspecified big city we never hear the name of. Architectonically, some viewers may recognize the filming locations – Oxford is the first one that comes to mind – but the film never specifies where in the world our characters are moving. It is a global metropolis that could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time, situating our story in an unspecified time and place before the events of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. It could be any big city where the competition to make your dream come true is ruthless and, oftentimes, unfair. The film’s criticism of the economic structure and unjust system in this unnamed city can similarly ring true to any big city we can think of.
While all of the cast proves to be a triple threat in dancing, singing, and acting, Chalamet particularly stands out in his rendition of such an iconic character. In Wonka, his acting abilities match his skills in singing and dancing, proving once again his versatility as an actor. I found his performance as the lead particularly impressive in terms of comedy, as Chalamet is not particularly known for comedic roles but manages to pull this one off incredibly well: much of the film’s comedy relies on Chalamet’s performance and delivery.
However, Wonka does not come without its controversy. Earlier this year, Grant’s casting as the Oompa-Loompa attracted criticism as actors with dwarfism still struggle to get jobs in the film industry and the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory did cast various actors with dwarfism for the Oompa-Loompa characters. The fat jokes in this film also feel very old: fat jokes were never funny but it is quite disappointing, and frankly also lazy, to see them in such a big Hollywood film in 2023. They also hurt the overall comedy as none of them lands well, and the film could have done very well without them.
Despite its flaws, Wonka is still a charming film that will be a perfect rewatch during the Christmas period in the years to come. In a grey world, Wonka reminds us we can still find all the colours of the rainbow, and even some more, if we dare to dream. The film is a beautiful call to make all your wishes come true no matter what challenges you may face on the way. With this film, the filmmaking team dared to dream of music and colours that bring us right back to the wonderful world of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Wonka will be released in UK cinemas on December 8 and in US theaters on December 15, 2023.