‘Wonka’ review: Cutesy prequel is ho-hum-diddlyumptious
“Wonka,” a sugary prequel to Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” delivers not so much a world of pure imagination as a land of constant cuteness.
Of course it does. The affable musical film is directed by Paul King, the King of “Aww”s, who made heart-warming hits out of “Paddington” and “Paddington 2.”
But as similarly likable and visually exciting as his “Wonka” can be, a question nags:
Running time: 116 minutes. Rated PG (some violence, mild language and thematic elements). In theaters Dec. 15.
Is it right to turn Dahl’s eccentric chocolatier, who in the original tale (that inspired the 1971 film) probably murdered several children, into another cuddly teddy bear?
I’m not so sure. Timothée Chalamet’s impish charm and oddball quirks in the title role notwithstanding, that’s what he is — a huggable cartoon.
Absent of any edge or layered characters, “Wonka” is at its most enjoyable when you forget the novel and classic Gene Wilder film and strap in for routine pleasantness.
High expectations ruin everything, after all. Just ask Veruca Salt.
Setting aside our cherished memories is not too hard, considering “Wonka” makes few attempts to specifically connect to what came before it outside of piping in the song “Pure Imagination” here and there (unwisely) and adding in a tear-jerker golden ticket throwback.
Thankfully, that disregarded past also includes Johnny Depp’s creepy Michael Jackson impersonation.
However, it’s a shame that in this origin story the viewer doesn’t leave with any deepened understanding of who Willy is.
I certainly don’t now know why a cold Wonka will years later let Augustus Gloop drown in a river of molten chocolate, or how he could so nonchalantly send Violet Beauregarde off to be “juiced.”
Even the familiar is unrecognizable.
The Oompa Loompas are back, but have been tweaked. The one we meet (a petite but pompous Hugh Grant) has been reworked into a crafty, chatty, upper-crust Brit, obviously to erase those pesky imperialism critiques about previous portrayals of the captured Loompaland natives.
And, while there are plenty of shady adults, there are no frightening Dahlian lessons for kids about the perils of bad behavior, a la “The Witches,” “Matilda” and “Charlie.”
“Wonka” is its own, totally unchallenging confection. A Nestle Crunch bar of a movie.
In King’s telling, Wittle Willy isn’t a troubled recluse yet, but a bright-eyed dreamer who arrives in an all-purpose European city with the goal off opening up the world’s best chocolate shop.
But he faces stiff competition from a trio of ne’er-do-well candymakers who are threatened by the newcomer: Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Wonka’s nemesis who tried to steal his creations in the original, Prodnose (Matt Lucas, unfunny as it gets) and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton), who gags whenever he hears the word “poor.” A poor gag, indeed.
They bribe the corrupt chocoholic police chief (Keegan-Michael Key) to stop him.
Willy is also tormented by the villainous Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis), his landlords who trick him and others into indentured servitude. With cockney accents and sleazy upcharges, they’re pretty much the masters of the house from “Les Misérables.”
The baddies have five others trapped in their house washing clothes, including Abacus (Jim Carter), Piper (Natasha Rothwell) and Noodle (Calah Lane), a young orphan. In trying to escape, for some reason they steal a giraffe from the zoo.
Like the last two on-screen takes, “Wonka” is a musical, this time with absentminded toe-tappers by Neil Hannon.
The seven songs are nice enough, with an “Oom pah pah!” thrust and upbeat names like “You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This” and “A World of Your Own.” But Hannon is no Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. This candy man can just barely.
What of Timothée? He’s perfectly fine. A Wonka you’d like to have a hot chocolate with. All told, the family film is a smart move for Chalamet, who tends to land in more brooding parts, be they indie ingenue cannibals or outer-space heroes who summon giant sandworms. For once, he’s refreshingly happy and funny.
Still, if you want to view paradise, simply look around for the Gene Wilder movie.