The new take on Willy Wonka, from Paddington 2 director Paul King, is something of an achievement. Review here.
The fundamental problem staring the very expensive Wonka film in the face is, at heart, the John McClane issue.
For a while, you may recall there was a moment where a Die Hard prequel was being actively considered that would have told us the story of how Bruce Willis’ McClane got to the point where we found him in the first movie. The years of walking the beat, and building his career and life.
The response? A pretty universal ‘why do I need to know that’?
But that’s the common complaint of the origin film: it’s telling backstory that’s kept in the background for a reason. Some mysteries are best left as just that. And definitely not worth spanning out to a trilogy, I should note.
Wonka then, co-written by the Paddington 2 team of Simon Farnaby and Paul King, and directed by the latter, faces that very mountain.
However people have encountered Roald Dahl’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory before – through book, films, or the Tom & Jerry animation – few have questioned just how the central character arrived at where we find him. Tim Burton dug at it a little in his tepid 2005 telling of the story, but to nowhere near the degree this new movie does.
Farnaby and King know what they’re up against, and very much roll their sleeves up. They set about addressing the challenge through a mix of song, dance, chocolate and flying nuns. And they make no bones early on about which screen version of Roald Dahl’s text they’re allied to either: as soon as the bars of ‘Pure Imagination’ from 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory play out, we know where our foundations are.
The setup then sees Willy, for we shall call him that, already adept at making delicious chocolate treats. He’s poor, which doesn’t stop him making confectionary that’d require a significant Kickstarter appeal to fund, and we meet him sailing into port at what looks like Lyme Regis, singing a song whilst clinging to the mast of a ship.
My heart did not leap at that point, and whilst the subsequent number where he promptly gives what little money he has hit its stride a bit quicker, it’s not a film that shoots out of the chocolate blocks at great speed.
No matter, as it soon finds its footing, not least when Willy, played endearingly by Timothee Chalamet, arrives at the accommodation of Olivia Colman’s Mrs Scrubbit and Tom Davis’ Bleacher.
An unlikely screen couple – and quite a frisky one – the pair on the surface seem to offer rooms for those in need, albeit with a bit of schooling on contract law built in.
Those living in the bowels of their home though – led by Jim Carter’s Abacus Crunch – may take issue with just how generous they appear to be, not least the impressive Caleh Lane’s young Noodle, who soon becomes Willy’s sidekick.
Willy needs all the help he can, too. Walking into a posh shopping centre, there’s his dream location at the heart of it, but three dastardly chocolatiers around it. Step forward Paterson Joseph as Slugworth, Mathew Baynton as Fickelgruber and Matt Lucas as Prodnose. Joseph in particular has a snarly relish that’s comfortably one of the standout performances in a sizeable ensemble.
Hugh Grant is another, whether you agree with his casting or not. He’s able to nail a character who’s grumpy, in a bad mood and generally intolerant with some skill. As Paul King has implied, it wasn’t a tough audition.
There are a fair few plot lines flying around Wonka, but King and Farnaby’s script keeps on top of them comfortably enough. The main one, as my colleague Ryan Lambie noted, bears the DNA of Scarface, as an outsider tries to crack a sinister cartel selling an addictive product.
Scarface has fewer songs, though, and Wonka stops at several points for a good old-fashioned number, with mixed results (Neil Hannon is on songwriting duties). The best musical sequence for me is You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This, a piece of work that gives away a clear love of and respect for classic MGM musicals.
Nathan Crowley’s extensive production design and Paul King’s shine for detail absolutely shine through too.
Several other ingredients are thrown into the mix, including giraffe milking, Rowan Atkinson as a bumbling vicar, and at one stage a Mission: Impossible style heist. It’s never less than entertaining, and often, hugely so. For a good hour in the middle of it, I found Wonka flat-out brilliant, brimming with magic, confidence, colour and life.
Even the final act – which is frantic, but also feels a little familiar – is very well put together. And at the heart of it, Chalament finds space to put a stamp on a character that’s clearly leaning towards Gene Wilder’s iconic Willy.
This is, then, hugely likeable family entertainment, and even on first watch, there’s much to look forward to in an encore viewing.
Still, it’s an inevitability when you’ve made Paddington 2 that your next film is going to be compared to, well, Paddington 2. A high bar that only Orson Welles has managed to vault over.
In the case of Wonka, it’s cut from similar cloth as the Paddington films, but a little less its own thing. Here, King and Farnaby are leaning on a movie 52 years old for some of their emotional heft, not least when – after much teasing – Pure Imagination is belted out.
The stage musical of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory does the same thing: finds its own way for much of its running time, but leans on charted waters when it needs something reliably magical. I couldn’t help but wonder if Wonka could have cut the cord a little more than it did, and resisted the urge to tie itself to the 1971 movie. What the film and stage musical do is demonstrate just where you go for the best of the songs: five decades into the past.
Small quibbles though (to which I’ll add the fat suit to the list as well, thinking about it), it’s hard to think of any director making live action family films on the scale Paul King is, certainly to such a high standard. He’s done so again here. Wonka may be neither his – or Orson Welles’ – best movie, but it’s still a sparkling one, and a great deal better than the idea of a Willy origin story arguably merits. Expect a huge hit, and it’s hard to begrudge King and his team that.
One aside: whilst the idea of a Die Hard prequel may have evaporated, on this evidence, I’d genuinely be fascinated to see a) what Paul King would do with it, and b) where he’d fit Hugh Grant in.
Much like Wonka, wouldn’t need quite so many songs, though…
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