4 out of 5 stars

Roald Dahl’s children’s stories have always had some bite to them. The BFG isn’t merely a tale of frobscottle and whizzpopping, there’s man-eating giants. If you’ve seen Wes Anderson’s recent Henry Sugar shorts, you’ll be well-acquainted with this underlying darkness—“The Ratcatcher” might even have too much bite. However, in his most popular works, such as The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl strikes a masterful balance. He employs a touch of grim reality as a springboard for grand fantasy, a technique that amplifies the impact of the fun elements.

Wonka pays homage to Dahl’s style with its villainous Mrs Scrubbitt (Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis), and the occasional candy corruption, but it never veers into mean-spiritedness or cruelty. Instead, it’s infused with a bubbly optimism that overflows the narrative. Does this approach border on cloying sweetness, or is it a tasty new recipe?

This heightened sweetness will come as no surprise to those familiar with the director’s previous work—two Paddington films—but those unprepared for the sugar rush may find it a little overwhelming. Willy Wonka navigates the world with an innocent belief in its inherent goodness, often puzzled when he learns otherwise. Just as some found Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) too dreary, some may find Wonka to be an overly saccharine affair. However, if you crave a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory experience more like Paddington (2014), then Wonka is a perfect treat.

This prequel to Dahl’s story finds Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) fresh off the boat from his chocolate-studying adventures abroad. He’s amassed an impressive collection of the finest ingredients—giraffe’s milk, cocoa beans from an uncharted island—and is now ready to establish his business and make his name. However, he’s unaware that this city is not welcoming to new chocolatiers. In fact, it’s under the control of a powerful cartel that has corrupted the city watch with their delectable confections—the chief of police himself would willingly batter aspiring chocolatiers for a box of candy—and to make matters worse, on his first night in town, he’s coerced into a debt that he cannot hope to repay. But with the help of fellow debtors and an orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane), he hatches a scheme to undermine the cartel and ensure the success of his product.

Similar to its predecessors, Wonka is a musical, incorporating original songs alongside the well-known classics. Few are as memorable as the originals, but Chalamet sings well and maintains a captivating presence on-screen. Occasional moments of glazed-over eyes and slightly flat acting aside, the supporting cast help pick up any slack. The ensemble of British comedians and TV personalities provides a delightful “in-the-know” element for those familiar with them, and newcomers like Wonka’s sidekick Noodle also don’t disappoint. Finally, Hugh Grant’s portrayal of the Oompa Loompa is great fun, with impressive CGI that justifies his complaints about motion-capture resembling a “crown of thorns.”

While the film’s VFX show in some spots, making certain moments appear slightly false—Bleacher’s dog and a climactic magical montage stand out as particularly flat—these shortcomings are likely attributable to budgetary constraints. The film’s main set-pieces, however, are remarkably well-crafted, with sequences like Wonka milking a giraffe in the moonlight and floating over the city with a handful of balloons truly magical.

But it’s nice to see they used practical effects whenever they could—like swimming in chocolate, sitting on a cotton candy cloud, or the many whimsical locations built from scratch. These cute locales, such as the pigeon coop, the security guard’s post, and the chocolate vault, also evoke Wes Anderson’s signature meticulous, pastel style. The costume design exudes a similar charm, with an array of charming, candy-coloured ensembles—like the Neapolitan striped shirt that Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher) wears.

In fact, behind the scenes of this pleasant popcorn flick are many industry legends who you wouldn’t expect to see involved. The cinematographer is Park Chan Wook’s beloved Chung-hoon Chung (Oldboy), the costume designer is Academy Award-winner Lindy Hemming (The Dark Knight), and it’s produced by David Heyman (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). It’s clear a lot of skill went into cooking up this confection, and while they’ll likely be overlooked during award season (competition is fierce), they’re deserving of some applause for their work.

Similarly, the rest of the film’s elements can’t be considered individually exceptional. None of the songs, characters, writing, or anything else stand out as so exquisite that Wonka will be an instant favourite based on any one of them alone. However, the cumulative effect creates a charming and enjoyable experience. Fans of Paddington, Horrible Histories (2009-2014), or Peep Show (2003-2015) will be delighted to see familiar faces from these shows appearing in various roles. Those who enjoy dancing, musicals, and happy endings will also be charmed. And for those seeking a cute twist on the “Pure Imagination” song, one awaits. Taken as a whole, Wonka is a swirling, intoxicating concoction that effortlessly sweeps audiences up in its fun.

USA • UK • CANADA | 2023 | 116 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Paul King.
writers: Simon Farnaby & Paul King (story by Paul King; based on characters created by Roald Dahl).
starring: Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Keegan-Michael Key, Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Sally Hawkins, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter, Tom Davis, Olivia Colman & Hugh Grant.