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Review: 'Wonka'

My initial reaction to the first trailer I saw for Wonka was less than positive.  I feared that it was going to be a money-grab project cashing in on the success of the beloved Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) starring Gene Wilder.

It occurred to me that an attempt to squeeze more success out of that classic film had already been attempted with the Tim Burton version Charlie and the Chocolate Factory starring Johnny Depp back in 2005.  Despite the blatant attempt to cash in on the original film by remaking it and updating it with digital effects, I was admittedly curious about what the combined talents of the director and star might produce.  They had collaborated very successfully in the making of Edward Scissorhands in 1990.  This was a quirky story not unlike Scissorhands.  The jury was out.

But that movie turned out to be a disappointment for me partially due to Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka.  As in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) when he molded his pirate character on the quirky, staggering drunk mannerisms and persona of The Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richard (a brilliant choice that almost got him fired by the movie’s producers) he decided to build his Wonka character on the legendary Broadway superstar Carol Channing (of Hello Dolly fame). 

In my estimation, it just didn’t work.  The result was a Willy Wonka that was more than a bit strange, bordering on creepy.  It was certainly a bold departure from Gene Wilder’s Wonka, but it lacked the charm and likeability that Wilder brought to the character.

I wondered what Timothee Chalamet would bring to the table in this backstory prequel project. 

Chalamet is a talented young actor whose credits included Interstellar (2014), Call Me by Your Name (2017), Dune (2021) and Don’t Look Up (2021).  His body of work made me take notice.

The other credit that caught my attention was that of the director Paul King whose resume includes Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017), two movies that really impressed me.  I raved about them, and still do.  They are two children’s story film adaptations that will endure due to their brilliant writing and direction that balanced perfectly rendered animation with colorful live action.

If anyone could make a Willy Wonka prequel really work, I was convinced that it was Paul King.  He was perfectly suited.

Happily, his Wonka prequel is everything I hoped it might be -- a joyous romp of a movie musical that lovingly compliments the original story.

It begins with a young Willy Wonka returning from a long sea journey to his beloved home in England where he plans to take all that he has learned and turn it into the world’s greatest chocolate business.  He has all the secret ingredients required to succeed as well as a little tough of magic. 

What he lacks is the necessary startup money having lost his meager savings within hours of his arrival.  This results in a search for affordable temporary lodging which in turn, results with him signing a ten-foot-long legal agreement without taking the time to read the fine print.  We discover that reading was a skill that he failed to acquire on his long journey around the world. 

It proves to be a costly handicap that soon puts him in bad standing with the local police who apprehend him.  Soon afterward he finds himself the prisoner of his evil landlady and in the company of similar cohorts who all share the same fate, working as slave labor in her grungy basement laundry business. 

In stories like this, you know that their seemingly unrelated skill sets eventually will be the key to their freedom.

Willy’s closest ally is a kind-hearted young girl named Noodles played by Calah Lane who has also sold her soul to the aforementioned evil landlady (played by Olivia Coleman).  The casting is perfect, including supporting roles by Jim Carter (the butler in Downton Abby), Keegan Michael Key (as a corrupt, chocoholic policeman) and Sally Hawkins as Willy’s loving mum.

Wonka plays with audience expectations by holding back on the introduction of The Oompa Loompa until well into the second half of the film.  It’s a moment worth waiting for with Hugh Grant doing his take on a character that frankly lacked any real character or personality in the previous Wonka films.  It’s a brilliant bit of writing and casting.

Granted, Wonka is a departure from the previous films in terms of characters and relationships, but it is well-written and well-crafted.

It cleverly links the connection to the Gene Wilder classic by dropping in musical elements that nostalgically and emotionally bridge the two movies together.

Wonka does a great job mixing the old and the new.  It tells the story of how an enterprising young man came to be Willy Wonka.  It’s a journey with entertaining twists and turns and surprises all told in just under two hours—a rarity these days.

Fans will not be disappointed.




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