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‘Wonka’: Light, Sweet, and Not Very Filling (4K UHD Blu-ray review)

Warner Bros.

When you’ve acquired the rights to a character—but not either of the books that character appears in—a prequel is likely to be your safest bet.

Among other things, it keeps you from having to explain why your protagonist never seems to mention any of the past events he’s famous for. So it was with young Gandalf and young Hannibal, and so it is with Wonka. In this sprightly musical, director Paul King (Paddington) is able to show us how young Willy Wonka (played by sprightly Timothée Chalamet) first achieved success as a chocolatier without the burden of having to explain how he became that Willy Wonka, the one who quoted Shakespeare while unpleasant children got sucked into pipes and turned into blueberries.

You will not meet that Wonka in Wonka. If you can get past making comparisons, you are likely to have a good time. If not, it’s going to be a long two hours.

I mentioned that it’s a musical.

In the opening number, Wonka sings about his dream of enlightening the world with chocolate as his makes port in a vaguely London-ish steampunk city.

Wonka has just returned from a long sea voyage where he’s practiced his craft and collected an array of rare and exotic ingredients. This is actually true to the character as Roald Dahl conceived him in his 1964 novel Charlie and The Chocolate Factory—a world traveler before he became a factory recluse. Less Dahl-esque is the seemingly bottomless top hat that Wonka reaches into whenever he needs a very specific item to get himself out of trouble

s a kind of gentle whimsy. He can build and decorate a shop without a budget, cook without a kitchen, and sees the goodness in literally everyone he meets—even the scheming laundress Mrs. Scrubit (a plummy Olivia Colman), who tricks him into signing himself into virtual slavery. It’s while working in Scrubit’s laundry that he meets young Noodle (newcomer Calah Lane), a wised-up orphan who joins with other indentured laundry workers to help Wonka build his chocolate business.

It’s impossible to tell Wonka’s story without some commentary on capitalism: Dahl seems to have baked it into his character’s DNA. Like Scrooge McDuck and Mr. Fezziwig, the literary Wonka is a happy capitalist, who (we’re told) profits without exploiting. His competitors are all hacks who stoop to spying on him, so as a security measure he fires all his employees and imports Oompa-Loompas from far-off Loompaland. This was an eyebrow-raiser even in Dahl’s time (the Oompa-Loompas were originally depicted not as orange but Black), and the script by King and Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) devotes no small energy to revising some of the less savory aspects of Dahl’s economic worldview. Wonka’s Oompa-Loompa, played to arch perfection by Hugh Grant, is not a minion but a sage, with some very important lessons to teach Wonka about stealing cacao beans from their rightful owners.

The trio of established chocolatiers—Slugworth, Ficklgruber, and Prodnose (the last played by Little Britain’s Matt Lucas)—aren’t rivals but oligarchs, conspiring to control the supply of liquid chocolate in order to stifle innovation and force competitors out of the market. They’ve got the cops in their pocket and the local priest (an underutilized Rowan Atkinson) hiding their product. In this conception, Wonka isn’t a capitalist but a liberator. He seems less interested in making a profit and more in the transformative powers of his superior confections. During an extended song sequence we learn that his candies aren’t just for the sweet tooth—they can boost your confidence, make you sing and dance, even send you soaring into the air. People just can’t say no to the chocolate: it’s that good. Watching this scene, I began to see that Willy Wonka and Walter White have a lot more in common than just their initials.

Despite a few setbacks, there’s never any doubt that the story will ever veer from sunny territory: chocolate conquers all.

If I had to choose one word to describe the world of this film—and Chalamet’s Wonka—in particular—it would be “safe.” That’s not meant as faint praise. It’s definitely a step up from Johnny Depp’s creepy manchild performance in the Tim Burton version, and is very much Paul King’s thing. Chalamet plays Wonka like Mister Rogers and Bob Ross. He’s gentle and impish and decent. Whenever he’s presented with a dilemma—whether to warn customers that his product is causing people to sprout multicolored yeti beards, whether to give up chocolate so that Noodle and her friends will be safe, whether to give the Oompa-Loompa his chocolate back—you never doubt for a second that he will do the right thing, because that’s what Safe Wonka does. I can see why so many parents enjoyed taking their kids to this movie. The world has not been a very safe place lately.

Which is precisely why I could enjoy Wonka, but I could not convince myself to love it.

Because I am not one of those people who can avoid making comparisons to that Wonka, the 1971 Mel Stuart version starring the entirely amazing Gene Wilder. It seems fair to compare the two, seeing as the script goes to some length to tie itself to that particular version. Hugh Grant’s Loompa hairstyle and makeup are exactly what we saw in 1971… and when he sings, damned if he doesn’t waggle his hands and sing “doopitee-doo.” The opening notes of the score are the soul-rending notes of Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination”—and I don’t think it’s a spoiler at this point to reveal that Chalamet will sing the entire song, very beautifully, at the end. You can’t hear that and not think of Gene Wilder.

Let’s start with the song.

When Gene Wilder sings it—as he leads the children down to his chocolate river—it’s our first hint that he’s more than just a weirdo with a purple velvet fetish. Newley’s melody is haunting, the harmonies full of longing. Wilder sings it in the presence of the children, but he barely interacts with them. His blue eyes are full of ethereal light: he’s mostly singing to himself. This is something that happens a lot in the movie. Easily half his lines are asides to himself: as Violet is rolled out he muses, “It always happens. They always turn into blueberries” before shrugging “Oh well, I’ll get it right eventually.” The tour of the factory is a voyage into Wonka’s mind: it’s brilliant, funny, often charming. But it is not a safe place to be. We’re talking about a movie where you get to see a chicken’s head cut off. You know: for kids.

Wonka isn’t Wonka if you know what makes him tick from the beginning.

It was Wilder’s idea to make the audience think Wonka was an infirm old man, then have him do a tumble—from then on we wouldn’t know what he was capable of. Later, when he screamed at Charlie (“You LOSE!”), he knew he couldn’t hold anything back even though it might terrify the young actor, Peter Ostrum. All of this was in service of a huge cathartic reveal when we finally discover just what a great-hearted human he is.

Chalamet’s Wonka does not for a minute leave us guessing what is in his heart.

One of his first acts is to give his last silver sovereign to a poor child. This not only falls short of Gene Wilder’s masterful performance, it misses out on Roald Dahl’s magic. Dahl had a genius for engaging in secret conspiracies with his young readers. He was brave enough to share the truths that children know and adults deny: the world is not safe, your parents are clueless, and your fellow children are frequently twits… but if you are decent and kind, you will often find other decent and kind people hiding in strange shapes and unlikely places. That is the revelation of Wonka and his factory. But the reveal doesn’t work if we already know he’s a nice person.

Paul King’s movie is superior to the Burton version—and to most prequels—by not dwelling on backstory.

It’s amazing how much the audience does not need to know how Wonka got his top hat, or what a mean dad he had, or why he says “Scratch that. Reverse that” (another bit borrowed from the 1971 version). However, Wonka does share an unfortunate weakness with that other Timothée Chalamet movie, Dune: the hero who is already awesome at everything the first time we meet him.

I went into Wonka expecting to see him at the start of his journey—learning how to cross the chasm from just-good-enough chocolate to amazing, life-altering chocolate. I imagined seeing him enter strange foreign lands to locate those rare ingredients. I thought it might be fun to see his first encounter with an Oompa-Loompa, and finally see if a Vermicious Knid looks anything like I imagined. Instead, we meet him after all those things have happened. I believe it’s meant to plunge us straight into the action—the 1971 version did take a full 45 minutes to get us into the factory—but it does seem like all of the fun parts of Wonka’s story are being mentioned in hindsight without so much as a flashback.

My curiosity about Knids remains unsatisfied.

Ultimately you have to accept a film for the story it is telling, not the one you wish it was telling.

Paul King’s story is about downtrodden and overlooked people getting a chance to make something wonderful happen. Wonka succeeds at what it set out to be, which is a feel-good romp.

It’s lovely, light dessert.

But you can’t make a meal out of dessert.

Extras include featurettes and Musical Moments linking to the film’s 13 musical scenes.

 

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