The moment I knew Warner Bros.’ Wonka was in good hands was during the rousing opening number. As Timothée Chalamet sings of all the chocolate and opportunity he will create when he settles in this new city, there is a moment where the music slows down. Donned in Wonka’s iconic top hat, he starts walking down the stairs before taking two quick steps back up. It’s an early nod to the beloved and brilliant Gene Wilder performance of the original.
Wonka is full of these small little references meant to reassure you as you venture further into this new story. Following Willy’s origins as a young chocolatier, his kindness and naivete quickly lead him to have little money and be trapped by the gasly motel and workhouse owner Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her besotted henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis). There he meets a young orphan, affectionately called Noodle (Calah Lane), and the rest of the indentured occupants (Jim Carter, Natasha Rothwell, Rakhee Thakrar, and Rich Fulcher), before sneaking out every day to try and sell his magical chocolate in the market square.
Wonka’s presence quickly threatens three chocolate makers who run a candy mafia – Prodnose (Matt Lucas), Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton), and Slugworth (Paterson Joseph). They bribe the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to threaten and intimidate the young man who is not deterred by any of his setbacks. Meanwhile, Wonka is stalked by a tiny orange man (Hugh Grant), stealing his chocolate stock in the dead of night.
Director and co-writer Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby gained recognition and the love of millennials everywhere when they teamed up for the brilliant Paddington 2 a few years back. This creative duo turns out to have the perfect recipe for carrying on the Wonka legacy. The production design is magical, combining the whimsy and charm of the Paddington and Harry Potter franchises (David Heyman is a producer on all three projects). The songs are witty and the wordplay is often. King and Farnaby seamlessly combine Roald Dahl’s novel with timeless and vital elements from the Gene Wilder version.
Speaking of, Chalamet brings a sweetness to the iconic chocolatier that previous performances didn’t. Combined with unbridled enthusiasm, his Wonka is endearing, optimistic, and filled with childlike wonder. He lacks the bite that Wilder brought to the role, but in doing so makes the part his own.
There has been much debate over this film and the upcoming Disney live-action remake of Snow White and how their studios did not cast little people in roles historically meant for them. While Wonka feels like a missed opportunity to take a stereotypical archetype and give it agency, the creative team doubles down on negative body representation with Keegan-Michael Key’s Chief of Police.
To show his corruption and chocolate addiction, Key’s size gets enormously bigger throughout the film. He wears a fatsuit and prosthetic face makeup akin to Ben Stiller in Dodgeball or Eddie Murphy in Norbit. Could his downfall be visually represented in another way? Absolutely. Do the fat suit and inevitable fat jokes push the narrative forward in any way? No, it serves no purpose other than a visual gag that is unworthy of Key’s comedic prowess. The whole bit (if you can call it that) almost derails the whimsical and charming dynamic King and Farnaby have created, taking you out of the story whenever Key is onscreen.
While no film can capture the magic that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory gave children over the last five decades, Wonka finds its stride creating its own whimsical world. It is proof that Paul King is becoming the go-to auteur director for children’s movies, running on well-executed stories and pure imagination.
Wonka is in theaters Dec. 15. Watch the trailer below.