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Timothée Chalamet’s Prequel ‘Wonka’ Is Surprisingly Scrumdiddlyumptious – Monomaxos

Back in awful 2020, the new streaming service now known as Max announced its arrival with a big premiere: a Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The film was, of course, originally slated to be released theatrically, but the pandemic drastically altered those plans. The Witches was shuffled off to streaming, where it continues to live ignobly to this day. Though even if the movie had received a proper release, I don’t think it would have become a classic. It’s a strangely bland version of Dahl’s cute-creepy tale, with inelegant digital effects and an Anne Hathaway performance that doesn’t know if it’s coming or going.

Thus I didn’t have high hopes for another Warner Bros. attempt to raid the Dahl closet. Especially considering that the studio’s latest effort, Wonka (in theaters December 15), is something of an origin-story prequel, perhaps the worst invention of these I.P.-crazed times. The allure of madman chocolatier Willy Wonka is that we don’t really know anything about him—at least in Gene Wilder’s brilliantly enigmatic take on the character in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (a film that Dahl loathed). Who wants to see such an enduringly mysterious figure explained? Many people’s fears about Wonka were not allayed by the release of production stills. Then the first trailer all but confirmed that the movie was going to be a disaster, one that might derail the ascendant career of the film’s star, Timothée Chalamet.

But another contingent of observers, a smaller though not necessarily quieter bunch, held out hope. Their reasoning was that Wonka comes from the filmmaker Paul King, beloved for his whimsical but not quite cloying Paddington films. King would figure out a way to honor the timbre of Dahl’s work, these optimists insisted. Turns out, the rest of us were fools not to listen to them.

Wonka is, in fact, a lively, winsome pleasure, a film decidedly aimed at children that nonetheless incorporates some dark matter. The film is distinctly un-Disney, to make a perhaps unfair comparison; here, the cold gleam of corporate cynicism that so heavily colors Disney films like Cruella is nowhere to be seen. Wonka is more inventive, more purposeful in tone. Sure, it may be hard to believe that Chalamet’s sweet, goofy version of the character will eventually become a lunatic who at the very least stands idly by as children are put in mortal peril at his own factory. But Wonka isn’t noxiously sugar coated, either. There’s a faint edge to the film, nicely balancing out the friendliness that King so merrily evokes.

Wonka is set somewhere in the first half the 20th century, in a city that is part London and part Paris, with a little Venice thrown in for flavoring. Though no doubt largely rendered with CGI, Wonka has tangible visual texture; its grime is genuinely grimy, its shine truly shines. When young Wonka, given such noodly bounce by Chalamet, arrives, the city near immediately breaks out into song. We believe that the people of this charming ecosystem, so lovingly crafted, would respond exactly that way.

Villains do lurk, though. A brutal candy consortium led by Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) sees Wonka’s wondrous confections—they make you float, they regrow the hair of bald men—as an existential threat. Wonka also finds himself running afoul of a boarding house-cum-laundrette proprietor, Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her henchman, Bleacher (Tom Davis). While trapped as their indentured servant, Wonka befriends a ragtag group of fellow conscripts, including an accountant named Abacus Crunch (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) and an orphan girl, Noodle (Calah Lane). Wonka and Noodle’s friendship forms the emotional center of the film, reaching its crescendo in a lovely, poignant musical number that sees the two drifting over the city while dangling from an Up-esque bunch of colorful balloons.

Oh, right, yes: Wonka is a musical, its handful of cheery songs written by Neil Hannon. (Plus an old classic, nicely recontextualized.) Nothing is terribly earwormy, but the music is nimble and quaintly melodic—and Chalamet sings it as gamely as any former theater kid might. What could easily have been sweaty, a little embarrassing even, instead comes across as playful—Chalamet and his castmates generously shedding self-consciousness so that kids might enjoy themselves and learn a few worthwhile life lessons. King’s film has an air of community spirit, while still acknowledging the existence of greed and exploitation.

Speaking of exploitation: one foundational issue that Wonka must address, existing in the 21st century as it does, is the matter of the Oompa-Loompas, the diminutive race of orange people (with green hair) who seem, in earlier tellings of Wonka lore, to perhaps be enslaved. This version of Willy Wonka certainly does not want to risk framing its sprightly hero as a colonialist monster. And so Wonka must atone for a past theft, prosecuted by a particularly dogged Oompa-Loompa named Lofty (Hugh Grant, impressively maintaining his dignity). Wonka gives at least one Oompa-Loompa some agency, which probably won’t satisfy all critics of the characters’ iffy existence, but it is still an effort.

That’s but a side plot, though, as Wonka is mostly concerned with delivering poor Noodle to a better life and letting Wonka make some peace with the death of his mother (played, in flashback, with easygoing radiance by Sally Hawkins). Wonka doesn’t have much of an arc beyond that—he doesn’t really grow or change in any significant way. Which is actually to the film’s credit. Wonka keeps Wonka largely inscrutable, as he should be. I feared a love interest, but he or she thankfully never arrives. We needn’t know about Wonka’s sex life. He is there, instead, to amuse and delight as he shares the output of his obsessive work. Wonka does that quite well in the clever, inviting world that King has built for him, a place of surprising depth and pure imagination.
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