The first thing to know about Wonka, the latest film to revisit the Roald Dahl-created candyman and his antics, is that this version is the brainchild of co-writer and director Paul King, who also gifted us the wholesome perfection that is Paddington. The second thing to know is that as a young Willy Wonka, a precocious young man with a dream, Timothée Chalamet is simply a delight, as self-effacing and silly as he is genuinely emotive through his character’s tribulations (silly as those may be, too). Wonka, co-written with Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2), is a prequel that riffs off of what we know about the colorful candy-maker from Dahl’s book (and both the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder and the 2005 version starring Johnny Depp) to deliver a believable, if more gentle, origin story than his creator may have had in mind.
The majority of the film is concerned with young Wonka’s dedication to realizing his dream: opening a chocolate and candy store in the heart of Paris where only the best chocolatiers hold court. He’s recently arrived in town from waters abroad, and though he’s not got much to his name, his optimism and charm are endless. When he gets roped into a sort of indentured servitude at a local boarding house, he relies on his characteristic ingenuity to get not only himself but his fellow laborers out of their shared dismal fate. This is a Wonka with heart, one who’s at least several years away from teaching bratty kids a lesson in his rivers of chocolate, if ever. But just when he thinks he’s found his way out of one predicament, another finds him, as the hoity-toity chocolatiers in the plaza want nothing to do with him and plot, in cahoots with the local police, to keep Wonka out of their candy cartel. It’s clear through every scene of Wonka that King and team are having a ball, laughing alongside us as this caper unfolds.
Alongside Chalamet is an impressive roster of supporting castmates, from Olivia Colman as the evil stepmother sort of an innkeeper, all grimy teeth and smarmy sense of humor. Calah Lane is Noodle, the tween who tends house at the inn and becomes a quick ally of Wonka’s (that she’s got a dream of her own he can help her realize is no accident). The three evil chocolatiers are Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton, a trio of stupidity that plays right into cliches about wealth, greed, etc. Rowan Atkinson shows up as a minister who’s key to the candy cartel; Sally Hawkins is Wonka’s sweet mother; and Keegan-Michael Key nearly steals the show as the town’s Chief of Police (even if his storyline is the only out-of-tune note in the show: his fatness).
Oh, and there’s a third thing to know: Wonka is a musical, and one that accomplishes that rare feat attempted by many a film launching new original songs into the ether—they’re actually quite good. Neil Hannon is responsible for these numbers, a songwriter who might’ve taught Disney a few things for their ill-fated latest with forgettable tunes, Wish. Despite his deep resume at a relatively young age, Chalamet still has plenty to prove in the musical comedy arena, and he goes a long way to quieting naysayers here. He sings and dances with a comfortable lightness, as though he’s no stranger to donning a top hat and cane for a little group choreo in the town square.
A cynic would say (and some have) that Wonka knows what emotional buttons it’s trying to push and goes about it with a sort of paint-by-numbers predictability. And that may be so, to the extent that King and company understand how to marry authentic emotional connection with entertaining storylines and fantastical production design. Everywhere you look in Wonka is a surprise, and every emotional beat lands, drawing us more and more into this vibrant and delicious world. Kids will delight in the silliness of things like a kidnapped giraffe chasing Atkinson’s Father Julius through a cathedral, while young and old alike can appreciate the heart with which Wonka evolves from a doe-eyed new arrival with a dream into…well, into a doe-eyed town favorite with quite a sweet future ahead of him.