Wonka (2023) Review

With the other Timothée Chalamet movie postponed to next March, it’s interesting to see how the 27-year-old American-French actor would fare in a musical fantasy genre. One that is more laidback and upbeat than his usual dramatic roles seen in the likes of Call Me by Your Name, Dune and Bone and All.

The musical fantasy in question is Wonka. Not a remake or a reboot (thank god for that!) but rather a prequel to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And yet, I’m not sure whether a prequel is even necessary in the first place. I would prefer if Warner Bros. and director Paul King of the first two Paddington movies chose to adapt Dahl’s sequel book, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Believe it or not, there hasn’t been a big-screen adaptation until today other than what I read about Netflix planning to turn the author’s work as mentioned above into an animated series.

So, in Wonka, where King co-wrote the screenplay alongside Simon Farnaby, the prequel follows the titular character (Timothée Chalamet) as he arrives in a European city by boat after a long voyage. We learn he has the skill of making irresistible chocolate inherited from his late mother (Sally Hawkins) using different unique ingredients. His biggest dream is to open a chocolate shop at the Galeries Gourmet but his arrival is plagued with nothing but trouble.

First, he’s tricked by innkeeper Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her underling, Bleacher (Tom David) into signing a contract, resulting in forced labour working as a cleaner in her shady laundry business. From there, he got to know fellow victims including orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), accountant Ababcus Crunch (Jim Carter), telephone operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar) and comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher).

Second, he has to deal with tyrannical chocolatiers including Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton) and Prodnose (Matt Lucas). The trio doesn’t want any competition so they enlist the corrupted alcoholic chocoholic Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to issue a warning.

Timothée Chalamet and Hugh Grant in "Wonka" (2023)

And that is not all, as Wonka faces what he likes to call the “little orange man” a.k.a. Oompa Loompa (Hugh Grant), which has something to do with Wonka stealing the precious cocoa beans from Oompa Loompa’s island home.

Being a musical fantasy, we are treated to numerous song-and-dance moments between the storytelling. Some are uninspired while others are good, notably the quirky “Scrub Scrub” and the jubilant “You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This”. But it was the wonderful “For a Moment” featuring the duet of Timothée Chalamet and Calah Lane that truly impressed me the most. I was initially sceptical about Chamalet singing in front of the cameras.

Thankfully, he made quite an impression with his vocal performance. Not the best but sufficient enough while he does a decent job portraying the younger Wonka with a persistent but sweet-natured personality. Just that it’s hard to shake off the feeling the story barely hints at why Wonka would end up being wildly eccentric and mysterious. The prequel seems to be more interested in turning Wonka as wholesome as possible — a result that might not sit well with respective fans and audiences who grow accustomed to Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp in the 1971 and 2005 versions.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Calah Lane’s spunky Noodle and Olivia Colman’s gleefully over-the-top Mrs Scrubbit are worth mentioning here. The same also goes for Hugh Grant, Keegan-Michael Key and Rowan Atkinson, where the latter plays the corrupted priest Father Julius. The trio — Paterson Joseph, Matthew Baynton and Matt Lucas — however, is disappointingly lame as the villainous chocolatiers.

Technical-wise, Nathan Crowley’s eye-catching production design and Chung Chung-Hoon, who lensed some of Park Chan-Wook’s works including Oldboy and The Handmaiden, excel in his cinematography that looks aesthetically pleasing. Lindy Hemming’s overall colourful costume design is just as praiseworthy.

Shame about the plot, though. Not even having King and Farnaby, who previously collaborated in Paddington 2, can raise their storytelling above the mediocre level. The prequel plays it too safe with the family-friendly formula to the point it feels saccharine for its own good. A pinch of much-needed dark humour might do Wonka a favour. Still, the feel-good factor along with most of the entertaining cast and whimsical visuals prevent Wonka from, well, drowning in the chocolate river.