‘Wonka’ Review: Just Plain Chocolate

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Wonka, an unremarkable prequel fantasy musical for the famous chocolatier originally created by Roald Dahl.
User Rating: 6

It remains impressive when looking at the success rate of Roald Dahl adaptations. Given some of the disastrous attempts at bringing Dr. Seuss to life, I’m happy to be in a world where Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and, just recently, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar exist. Mel Stuart’s 1971 family favorite, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, certainly falls in with this crowd, but I was certainly curious about what to make of a prequel with specific work from Dahl to guide it along, beyond an understanding of his sense of humor and style. The resulting film, Wonka, more or less lives up to its promise, but I can’t say it’s delectable by any means. Sure, it’s ultimately harmless, and there’s too much charm and colorful work from the cast on display to outright dismiss it. Still, surely the chocolatier could have been matched with more than just some silly songs and a wonky Wonka performance.

Timothée Chalamet stars as the aspiring candymaker and inventor who arrives in the big city by boat, not to begin his plot for confection-themed revenge but to open a chocolate shop. Nearly penniless, Wonka finds himself taking forced residence at a laundromat owned by the devious Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). Still, despite his sudden imprisonment, it doesn’t stop Wonka from sneaking out during the days and beginning his plans to start a chocolate empire. However, he is also challenged by the three competing chocolatiers, including Mr. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), who gets help from the corrupt Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to keep Wonka from earning more. What’s a man to do? Well, thanks to Wonka’s endless guile and optimism, he’ll use magic, song, and dance to get the word out about his stupendous chocolate creations. All he has to look out for now is a pesky Oompa Loompa (Hugh Grant) looking for payback.

See Also: ‘Napoleon’ Review: The World Was Yours

Honestly, detailing the plot has all the makings of a story fitting of Dahl. There’s an ample supply of quirky characters who are defined mainly by colorful outfits and zesty personalities. The drama of it all feels quite overwhelming in a manner that suggests a story with more on its mind (in this case, human trafficking and big business, of all things), but can get away with the harsh details buried within thanks to an emphasis on adorable orphans and whimsy. What holds it back is a fluctuation in tonal choices, as there’s a sincere feature focused on a young man wanting to make good on promises to a dead mother and an orphan girl who is also defined by just enough logic-bending tricks to make you more curious about what’s going on underneath Mr. Wonka’s hat and between his ears.

Yes, for all the goofiness that should come from this fully realized world where the citizens are very concerned with the chocolate industry at large, we have this lanky man at the center who I had a tough time getting a handle on. Naturally, part of Willy Wonka’s charm is his ability to turn you one way and appear at the other end for the sake of helping you start believing the impossible. With Chalamet, while he clearly had the Gene Wilder performance in mind to an extent, in making this character his own, he felt pretty twitchy. There’s an earnestness in his voice at times, while other moments make me feel as though he’s holding back an extra sense of madness. Will this be the man who grows into a recluse looking to teach lessons to children in inspired, daffy ways? I’m not so sure.

Otherwise, director Paul King (the Paddington films) and co-writer Simon Farnaby try to layer in plenty of fun exchanges between the other characters. Small character work from veterans such as Jim Carter and Rowan Atkinson goes a long way for films like this. The villains of the picture are certainly up to task as well. Newcomer Calah Lahne also brings what’s needed as a means of grounding some of the looper elements of the film by reminding audiences that Dahl would always be willing to threaten the life of a young child if it led to a good enough bit of dark comedy. The bit involving Key’s police character growing increasingly overweight due to excessive chocolate eating, on the other hand, perhaps in too poor of taste.

All of these characters are placed within an elaborately created world as well. It’s full of vibrant colors, old-fashioned buildings, despite the timeless nature of the story, and enough open space for the various musical numbers. Is any of this memorable? Not really. For all the cute songs with some wacky wordplay, I can’t say there’s anything here that really felt like it would last much longer than a moment. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie seems aware of this, as its big, emotional catharsis is a nostalgia play. Obviously, a film like this must rely on references to Dahl in some form or another, but it speaks more to how frivolous a choice it was to deliver a movie like this than it doesn’t when it comes to looking at what it was all for, and only having references to the 1971 film as the truest moments to show for it.

With all that said, I have reserved plenty of space for discussion of Hugh Grant’s Lofty, the Ooompa Loompa, who shows up midway through the film and continually steals scenes every chance he gets. Is it a cheap gag to rely on a CGI-ified Grant being as droll as possible to make up for a lack of more distinctly fresh ideas? Perhaps, but I can’t help if all this business with him is funny. Grant’s later career transition to foils, villains, and supporting cads continues to pay off for the better. In a film searching to find delight, he’s one of the key answers.

Whether it’s a Chalamet performance that is just too all over the place for me or the lack of a stronger musical spirit to make me care more for that aspect of the film, I would have been happy to see Wonka defy the odds more effectively, but it just doesn’t quite have the almonds. Sure, it’s sweet and harmless, but I’m feeling happier sitting by and waiting for more exciting attempts at Dahl in other forms. Still, it’s not like this leaves a sour taste; I’m just ready to see other, more interesting parts of this chocolate factory elsewhere.

Wonka opens in theaters and IMAX on December 15, 2023.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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