Candy man: Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka in ‘Wonka’.
WONKA **** (116 minutes) PG
What a pleasant shock it is to declare how enjoyable, bright, fun and funny Wonka is.
We were worried there for a bit.
Upon learning that the film was heading our way, most right-thinking people, still in recovery after the cosmic mediocrity of 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Johnny Depp), feared that yet another stab at the character created by Roald Dahl in his classic 1964 children’s book would again fall short of Gene Wilder’s immortal portrayal in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Those fears vaporize within the first few scenes. Thank you, Movie God.
As expected, Timothée Chalamet’s turn as Wonka in Wonka can’t match the original and, quite wisely, doesn’t really try to. While he puts a youthful, exuberant spin on the character, the performance is full of nods to Wilder’s nuances, qualifying it as a loving tribute.
As for the film Chalamet drives, director Paul King (who did the Paddington movies) and co-writer Simon Farnaby (a veteran actor/writer/comedian) have done a mighty job fashioning a light-footed old-style family musical in the vein of Oliver! replete with handsome production values, heightened set design and a good deal of verbal and visual wit.
Wonka is an impressively original work filling in the backstory of Willy Wonka, who arrives in a stylized version of London with a head full of dreams about starting his own chocolate shop.
With no money and no place to stay Wonka’s vision is promptly side-tracked as he falls deeply in debt to a corrupt hotelier (played by a cheesy Olivia Colman) and is targeted for termination by a three-man cartel of local chocolate-makers who don’t appreciate anyone moving in on their territory.
To correct matters and keep his dream afloat Wonka teams up with the other eccentric inmates of the hotel to get the shop going.
Chief among them is Noodle, played by child actress Calah Lane who puts in an A-grade performance that is warm and likeable and not-at all annoying or precocious. Thank you again, Movie God.
A family-friendly crowd pleaser, the film is a joy to behold, thanks largely to the raft of top supporting turns from such notables as Rowan Atkinson, Matt Lucas, Mathew Baynton, Keegan-Michael Key (very funny as the Chief-of-Police) and Sally Hawkins, who appears as Wonka’s mother in flashback.
Stealing much of the film is Hugh Grant, shrunken down to size by some seamless VFX to play the original Oompa-Loompa. It’s a timely reminder about how good a comic actor Grant can be. Wisely,. he shows up in the second half as a mid-movie booster.
The idea of doing a Willy Wonka origin story certainly sounded wonky. Yet they’ve come up trumps here thanks to a wealth of fresh ideas, an interesting, emotionally driven central narrative and a swathe of engaging characters who sing, dance and gag their way through the colourful shebang.
It’s such infectious fun that after the brilliant finale unfurls it makes you wish they’d go ahead and – yes – fill in the rest of the story by doing another Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake.
Oh, another wonderful thing about the film – it somehow manages to come in at under two hours. How the heck did they do that?
There can be but one explanation:
it’s a Christmas miracle.