We live in cynical, hyperconnected times, and one remedy we rely on our cultural products to deliver now and again is genuine, unabashed sincerity. Feel-good stories sit on the opposing end of the spectrum to the gritty, deconstructive realism that’s been in vogue. If the latter offers a feeling of control through excavating and exposing the hidden assumptions that exercise so much power over our imaginations, then authentic sweetness is the comfortable escape hatch we cozy up inside, shielded from challenging realities and safe enough to lean into our yearnings. To that point, few directors today have a reputation for crafting feel-good magic like Paul King. The line between movingly sweet and saccharine is ultimately subjective, but his films Paddington and Paddington 2 have so many adoring fans that it’s safe to say he’s generally landed on the right side of the divide. Now King’s back with Wonka, a spiritual prequel about the eccentric chocolatier and magnate introduced in Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The question hanging over this film throughout is simple: is this latest foray in the quest for sincere, family-friendly cinema up to snuff?
Young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) sails into a 1940s-era city, keen on accomplishing his dream of opening a chocolate shop. He quickly loses the little money he has due to his good-hearted and airheaded nature. Bleacher (Tom Davis) invites him back to Mrs. Scrubbit’s (Olivia Colman) laundromat, offering room and board. Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan who lives at the laundromat, warns Wonka to read the terms of the rooming contract. Wonka can’t read, so he signs it anyway, quickly learning he’s then responsible for paying back excessive charges. He makes a killing selling his confections at the Galeries Gourmet, but the Galeries’ cartel of chocolatiers publicly disparages them after calling the cops to confiscate his earnings. Together with Noodle and the laundromat’s other captives, Wonka sets out to sell his chocolates and defeat the Chocolate Cartel.
In the age of slick-talking, aspirational entrepreneurs, Wonka opts to sidestep the discourse and tell a safer, simpler story. It’s not entirely surprising given this is a film aimed at children, with enough bizarro versions of our modern-day ills to ground the narrative for adult viewers. “The greedy beat the needy,” Noodle informs Wonka, aptly summing up and dumbing down the extent to which capitalistic excess has polluted this liberal European fantasia. On the one hand, this storybook world is pretty neat, with the city at the center of action functioning as an idealized, cosmopolitan melting pot. Yet the predatory bosses, corrupt cops, and conniving clergy still hold the economic power, though their buffoonery endears them enough so viewers leave any stronger, real-world associations at the door. Wonka doesn’t set out to transform the system or enact justice — all he wants is to make good on his talents and spread joy through his ingenious candies. His pureness and naïveté frame this desire with a nostalgic lens. Evoking the halcyon days when our interactions with the world didn’t seem so complicated, when we could truly believe all success requires is ability and determination, Wonka is the singing and swinging embodiment of the meritocratic ideal. What separates Wonka from the prosperous competitors he will one day outearn is that he has a heart, and Wonka urgently seeks to prove it has one beneath the musical numbers, CGI animals, and cartoony physics. The world we are leaving to our children is still worth inheriting, Wonka argues. We just need the right people pulling the levers.
Wonka is a dazzling studio concoction. The screenplay, penned by King and comedian Simon Farnaby (who also portrays Basil, one of the laundromat’s inmates) is whip-smart, with the more forced moments never causing lasting strain. The songs aren’t outstanding but there are certainly several earworms in the bunch, and the intricacy of the choreography and physical comedy lend a couple a dizzying power. The film boasts a stacked supporting cast, with the emotional core surprisingly located in newcomer Lane as Noodle. The onscreen avatar for the children in the audience, she and Wonka develop a mutual regard that verifies his capability for compassion. The completion of her character arc does ultimately register as the script merely paying off a setup, but her inclusion plays an essential role in saving Wonka from becoming empty spectacle.
Like the heliocentric offenses of the NBA, however, Wonka ultimately sinks or swims based on the strength of its central player. The Internet was quick to pick apart Timothée Chalamet’s turn as Wonka as soon as the first trailer dropped, mocking his cadence and quirky affectations. In the context of the full film, Chalamet’s work is satisfactory. He’s game for the tongue-twister dialogue and the Fred Astaire-inspired kicks and twirls, and his willingness to go all-in, even if his zaniness registers as manufactured to some, is necessary for Wonka not to devolve into a cringe-inducing affair. Does he soar as Wonka? Not really, perhaps because his capable performance exists in the shadow of Gene Wilder’s iconic portrayal, one that offered a more mature range of regret, darkness, volatility, and distinct strangeness that went a longer way in humanizing the character. Perhaps it’s because, given Chalamet’s megastar appeal, it’s difficult to view him divorced from his celebrity trappings. We’re aware we are watching Chalamet acting as Wonka rather than believing in the depth of the character in and of itself, though this likely won’t be as much of an issue for the children unacquainted with his mature, profile-building performances. So, while Wonka never reaches the level of genuine movie magic, like the best sweet treats, it offers a flavorful diversion substantive enough to not immediately melt in your mouth.
DIRECTOR: Paul King; CASR: Timothée Chalamet, Hugh Grant, Keegan-Michael Key, Calah Lane; DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Bros. Pictures; IN THEATERS: December 15; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 56 min.