Directed by: Paul King
Written by: Paul King, Simon Farnaby
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson
Released: December 14, 2023
Grade: B+


I’m not sure which family member provided the first introduction, but I remember loving the Gene Wilder-led Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory growing up.  It was fun and colourful and memorable.  That admiration never dissipated but as I matured, so too did my thoughts about the film.  I garnered a better sense of its darkness (especially compared to family films of today), its portrayal of human greed, and illustration of wealth inequality.  It also warmed the heart to see Charlie finish up on top!

Wonka serves as a prequel to the aforementioned 1971 flick (ignore the rubbishy Johnny Depp one from 2005) and is set 25 years before the infamous Golden Ticket competition.  Details are scant in Roald Dahl’s novel and so the writing team of Paul King and Simon Farnaby, who created the cult-hit Paddington 2, had flexibility in developing a Willy Wonka backstory.  They’ve gone with something lighter and are depicting Wonka as a kind, hopeful, optimistic individual.  He’s anything but the defeated recluse we know from the earlier movie.

I’ve been a huge fan of Timothée Chalamet since his breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in Call Me by Your Name and, in playing the title role of Wonka, he again illustrates his diversity as an actor.  His talent is on show from the opening scene – a musical number where he arrives in the big city with 12 silver sovereigns in his pocket and a hat-full of dreams.  Chalamet’s dancing/singing skills are charming but it’s the blend of quirkiness and sincerity he brings to the character which makes Wonka easy to root for.  He’s also skilfully channelling a few mannerisms of Gene Wilder – a fact that will be picked up by many adults in the audience.

 The narrative is centred on Willy Wonka as he encounters the wrath of a powerful “chocolate cartel” when, in honouring his late mother (Hawkins), he tries to open his first shop.  They sense his genius and want him stopped to protect their own bottom lines.  The corrupt Chief of Police (Key) should have better things to do (the “non-stop murders” perhaps?) but he too has been bribed by the three cartel leaders and is helping execute Wonka’s demise.   

There’s much going on inside the film’s brisk 116-minute running time and while it could easily have become overstuffed with unnecessary subplots, King does a great job reigning it all in as director.  The story is easy to follow, the musical numbers fit nicely, and the production values are strong.  It fulfills its mission in being an old-school, big-hearted family flick where there’s something for everyone.  Kids can laugh at the colourful Oompa Loompa (Grant) while adults can appreciate key themes (“the greedy beat the needy”).

One could be cynical about Wonka (I’ve seen a few negative reviews) and while I admit it’s not revolutionary, I was won over by its magic.