‘Wonka’ Review: Nostalgic Sweetness is More Saccharin and Far From Extraordinary

Michael Lee reviews Wonka, a decent enough fantasy musical that relies heavily on nostalgia, but still has its own sense of charm.
User Rating: 7

When it comes to an iconic character like Wonka, sometimes his signature charming enigmatism is best left up to our imagination. Most of us were introduced to the character when Gene Wilder played the title role in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a man of mystery and wonder who harbored a more dangerous and sinister personality. Now, director Paul King, who helmed the first two Paddington films, attempts to tell a sunny origins story of the reclusive chocolatier, played by Timothée Chalamet, but ends up having a bit of a cinematic identity crisis.

Rather than explore how Willy Wonka became a madman who lured unsuspecting spoiled children, plus one innocent pure of heart one, Wonka looks at the chocolatier’s early days trying to launch his business at the Gallery Gourmet. With nothing but his hat, a mini factory suitcase, and a pocket full of silver sovereigns, Wonka walks into London unprepared for the cruelty and greed that awaits him. Though some take advantage of his naivety, within “A Hatful of Dreams,” the film’s first musical number, we see how kind and inventive the man is. It’s an upbeat intro that gives us some insight into how he intends to make his ambitious dreams of giving chocolate to all come true.

However, the chocolate cartels are the most prominent chocolate establishments in town and will force anyone out of business if they don’t comply with their whims. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Ficklegruber (Mathew Baynton), and Prodnose (Matt Lucas) believe “the poor” are not privileged enough to have their confections, an ideology that goes against daydreamers like Wonka. As such, Wonka is left to figure out how he will make a name for himself when the world seems against him. Even seeking shelter against the cold, he finds himself destitute. When he is tricked by a giant grunt Bleacher (Tom Davis), and a scheming innkeeper Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), Wonka is shocked to discover he owes more than just housing fees, he owes fees for the amount of steps he took; keeping his feet warm by the lobby fireplace, and sharing a drink of gin with the two.

As such, he is forced to work off what he is owed with an assorted bunch of people who, like Wonka, did not read the fine print of their legally binding contracts. There’s Abacus (Jim Carter), Slugworth’s former accountant; Larry (Rich Fulcher), a third-rate comedian with a niche talent; Piper (Natasha Rothwell), a tough plumber; and  Lottie (Rakhee Thakrar), a quiet telephone operator. Finally, there’s Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan with a tragic backstory who inherited her kindness, generosity, and literacy from her late parents. She’s skeptical of Wonka’s optimism and is unsure what to make of his eccentric nature.

So Wonka encourages the group of misfits to follow his lead while helping him make his dream come true while trying to allude to the chocolate cartel, who has the police chief (Keegan-Michael Key) and a local priest (Rowan Atkinson) in their pocket to do their corrupt and nefarious deeds. But Wonka, ever the optimist and go-getter, believes that it’s not the ingredients that make the chocolate special but how sharing it with others makes it wonderful – something that he learned from his mother (Sally Hawkins). No matter what happens, Wonka will make sure that he delivers on his promises to his friends and those whom he unintentionally hurt, like a wayward Oompa Loompa (Hugh Grant) who is trying to get Wonka back for the cocoa beans he stole from his island.

It’s a beautiful message, but its ingredients pull straight from what makes the Paddington formula so great. As such, Wonka has a bit of an identity crisis because it goes all in with its message of being kind and generous to others. So it’s not as if it’s a message worth spreading, we could all use some of that, but the film feels like it uses what couldn’t fit into the Paddington films and attempts to mix it and then repackage it as something else.

See Also: ‘The Little Mermaid’ Review: Doesn’t Sink, but Doesn’t Totally Swim Either

Additionally, King, who co-wrote the script with Simon Farnaby, preys upon our nostalgia for the character. Chalamet is entrancing as Willy Wonka, whose happy and charismatic nature, along with his flutey voice and squirrelly movements match the wonderous dreams of the eccentric chocolate maker. Trying to match Wilder’s energy and spirit is a daunting task, and the script doesn’t ask the young actor to do it but make it his own since this is an origins story. However, it’s a fine performance that doesn’t do anything to stand out from its predecessors.

It’s a creative decision that allows us to see Willy differently through Noodle’s experience. Lane’s performance grounds the film, and her character’s skepticism allows us to accept that Willy can be naive and oblivious while seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. The chemistry between the two likens that to the ending of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where Wonka connects to Charlie’s innocence and kindness because they don’t have any agendas or cruelty. This shines through in “For A Moment,” a whimsical duet about escapism from some of the cruelties of reality that sing and dance their way into your hearts. She brings out Wonka’s best while educating him with literary lessons. At times, Lane’s bright performance as Noodle can outshine Chalamet’s.

While Wonka masquerades itself as a musical, some songs are forgettable, while others are uninspired. “A World of Our Own” is manipulative and uses Wonka’s whimsical nature as a means to hit on some of those emotional beats. “Scrub Scrub” is a derivative working song meant to give the supporting cast a musical number of their own but doesn’t add much to the overall story. Meanwhile, outside of the colorful production design and cheery choreography, there’s nothing about “Sweet Tooth” that stands out as a villain song. Listening to the song on its own is less than ordinary and has little play-on-repeat value. And the same can be said for all the others outside “For a Moment” and Chalamet’s rendition of “Pure Imagination.”

Nostalgia plays a critical role in the film’s narrative. While that was going to be an unavoidable part of the storytelling, it does add to the film’s identity crisis. Here, King and Farnaby seem to use it as a crutch to hit those emotional beats rather than try to tell their own story of the man who would be the king of chocolate confections. It’s not exactly a disappointment on its first bite as Lane’s performance, along with the set pieces, Chalamet’s dizzying performance, Chung-hoon Chung‘s cinematography, and a few songs give Wonka some flavor, but one might expect more upon unwrapping this artificially sweet piece of cinematic chocolate that relies too heavily on the nostalgia.

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

Written by
Michael Lee has covered the film industry for over the past decade for sites like Geeks of Doom and That’s It LA. He looks forward to all kinds of films of all sizes whether it's the commercial blockbusters or small independent fare. But what he is most interested in is pushing for more diversity and representation, whether it is on screen, behind the camera, or at the top of a studio office.

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