We can probably all be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed at the news that acclaimed British writer and director Paul King would follow up the unexpectedly delightful 'Paddington' (2014) and its stone-cold, jaw-dropping masterpiece sequel 'Paddington 2' (2017) with a prequel to 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory' (1971). With his work on the 'Paddington' films, King had demonstrated a unique artistic voice, somehow mixing whimsy, heart, comedy, anarchy and sincerity into about as satisfying a mix as it was possible to make, and a tentpole IP reboot just seemed like a waste of his enormous talent, right as 'Paddington 2' had crowned him one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
Well, aren't we all a bunch of Wangdoodles, and Hornswogglers, and Snozzwangers, and rotten, Vermicious Knids for every doubting him. Rather than the uninspired cash-in we were likely expecting, another piece of thrown-together trash on the endless conveyor belt of nostalgia-driven drivel we're so used to, King's lavish, lovingly conceived prequel 'Wonka' proves itself not just to be a worthy addition to the legacy of Roald Dahl and his idiosyncratic chocolatier, but also completely in step with Paul King's wholesome, joy-inducing body of work.
We meet Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet, 'Call Me By Your Name') as a young man, a penniless but idealistically ambitious orphan with dreams of opening his own chocolate shop to sell his inspired confections. He finds himself in a European city where the famed Galeries Gourmet houses the finest chocolate in the world. Rather than being welcomed though, Willy finds himself in an untenable position, banned from selling by the city's elite Chocolate Cartel and in crushing debt to deceptive laundress Scrubbit (Olivia Coleman, 'The Favourite') and her henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis, 'Free Fire'). However, with the help of savvy young orphan Noodle (Calah Lane, 'The Day Shall Come') and the other poor souls tricked into servitude to Scrubbit and Bleacher, Willy devises a plan to sell his chocolate, earn the money to pay the debts for him and his compatriots, and finally open the chocolate shop he's always dreamed of.
The narrative concocted by King and co-writer Simon Farnaby is relatively simple and hits all the emotional beats you'd expect, but just like they'd done with the 'Paddington' films, they turn this into an asset rather than a hindrance. The joy is not in the inventiveness of its narrative but the tremendous inventiveness of its telling, the clarity of its tone, its refusal to apologise for its sincerity and the commitment to its emotional integrity. Despite being a prequel to the 1971 film more so than to Dahl's 1964 novel, the connective tissue comes second to the need for this to be an enthralling and satisfying story. In their hands, Willy (much like Paddington) becomes an idealistic underdog, whose pure belief in the inherent goodness in people leads him to both hairy situations and imaginative acts of kindness. In fact, Willy's single-mindedness is often what takes him to the edge of disaster, relying on Noodle in particular to help guide his moral compass with common sense. There isn't a hint of the psychopathic narcissist we know he will eventually become, but King and Farnaby aren't interested in exploring these origins in his personality. What concerns them more is the idea that our dreams are better shared with others, that through the way we bring joy and happiness to others, we find our way to our own satisfying lives. This is where we found Willy at the end of the original film when he was confronted by Charlie Bucket, and the idea here is that this is an ideal that will one day reawaken but has its origins in his youth.
SWITCH: 'WONKA' TRAILER 2
These kinds of prequels, the ones that seek to find the origins for who the character is going to become, are more often than not incredibly tedious and boring ('Maleficent' and 'Cruella' being prime examples), but it works here because the last thing Paul King wants you to be doing while watching 'Wonka' is thinking about any other film. He wants you to care about this iteration of Willy Wonka and all the new faces he has around him, and what this means for the character we know from past iterations is an added bonus. It's the secret sauce that makes 'Wonka' such a tremendous film - that it feels like a fully-constructed work in its own right.
And that's just the laying of the foundation, the base note in this delectable treat. We saw ample evidence in 'Paddington 2' that Paul King was a great director of musicals waiting to burst, and in 'Wonka' he fulfils that promise. Like the narrative, the songs from Neil Hannon are wonderfully simple, making them immediately accessible, each one directly linking itself with the narrative and emotional arc of the film. This simplicity gives King the capacity to have a ball in the staging, the magic realism of the setting allowing for bursts of inspired imagination and divine irreverence.
Each musical number is as dazzling as the last, cracking with lyrical, musical and visual wit. It's also distinctly British, the town bursting to life in a manner reminiscent of Carol Reed's musical epic 'Oliver!' (1968) or the 'Every Sperm is Sacred' sequence from 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' (1983). Unlike the musical sequences in the 1971 film, these are big, active, driven, bombastic, frantic and exhilarating, as if the film is playing the greatest game of 'And Then...' at every turn. There are musical and lyrical echoes of the original film as well (particularly 'Pure Imagination'), but Hannon and composer Joby Talbot take these as building blocks, weaving them into the score in subtle and suggestive ways that build over the course of the film. When they finally come to their full fruition, the results are as deeply satisfying as they are because they feel earned and vital. Again, 'Wonka' has circumnavigated the issues that often plague these kinds of legacy projects by making its relationship with its original feel more organic rather than forced.
It's also a joy to see how easily 'Wonka' wears its musical identity, the film seamlessly moving between song and scene without you even noticing. There's a consistency in the film's language, the way editing and choreography are maintained whether there is singing and dancing or just talking. There isn't a moment when King isn't paying close attention to every pop, every whiz, every movement within the frame. He also knows how to pitch the tone and the comedy, everything heightened to some sort of infernal, impossible measure where it's the right amount of silly and sincere to appeal to both adults and children alike. King and his collaborators have such a clear understanding of what children really want in their entertainment - not lazy pop culture references but a fast pace, healthy doses of danger and anarchy, unapologetic silliness and a tongue-in-cheek sprinkling of fart and vomit jokes. What legitimises the silliness is how gorgeous the whole film looks and feels, with sumptuous costumes from Oscar-winner Lindy Hemming ('The Dark Knight') and delicious sets from production designer Nathan Crowley ('Dunkirk'). There's a lovely balance here of the practical and the fantastical, the Dickensian fantasy of opulence and poverty balanced with real European buildings and streets. It's also lovely that so much of the film feels tactile, a credit to both the practical and visual effects.
King and Farnaby aren't interested in exploring these origins in his personality. What concerns them more is the idea that our dreams are better shared with others, that through the way we bring joy and happiness to others, we find our way to our own satisfying lives.
King also understands the success of the film really does rest with the cast, and just as he had with the 'Paddington' films, he goes to great lengths to make sure the whole ensemble is on the same page with the tone they need to strike. Leading the charge is Chalamet - where his casting had seemed a tad obvious when the project was announced, in actuality it turns out to be an inspired move. He's so effortlessly charming from the second he appears, his natural effervescence bursting from every move and every line. Chalamet immediately understands the balance he needs to strike with Wonka, where his goodness and self-confidence must meet his ignorance and idealism. We love his Willy Wonka because he seems relatable, aiming high and falling flat, but always willing to pull up his socks and give it another go. That charm permeates through both dialogue and song, making him one of those rare and wonderful film musical actors who plays their emotional and tonal arc through both forms without shifting gears. It feels like we're seeing a whole new side of him, perhaps something closer to his nerdy, irascible heart. He is such a delight in this role, hopefully the sign of a new avenue for his already impressive career to take.
And yet, for as bombastic a performance as he gives, he feels perfectly in step with the supporting cast. Calah Lane is a wonderful foil to him, a voice of reason rooted in the real world to balance his idealism. They have a lovely chemistry together, especially helpful in their quieter, more sincere moments together. The rest of the cast almost all deserve their own special mentions for the vital contributions their make - as well as a devilish Coleman and Davis, we get top-notch performances from Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Matthew Baynton as the conniving chocolate cartel Slugworth, Prodnose and Fickelgruber, the delightful combination of Jim Carter, Rakhee Thakrar, Natasha Rothwell and Rich Fulcher as Willy's fellow laundrette inmates, and even a welcome return to the screen of Rowan Atkinson as the chocaholic priest Father Julius. And of course, King reunites with the MVP of 'Paddington 2', Hugh Grant, this time giving his irresistible pompous comic persona to an Oompah-Loompah pursuing Willy in retribution for a past ill. Honestly though, even the one-scene performances from actors we've not seen before are memorable. King has a singular talent to make every single character we meet in his films feel full and important, even if they have only one line. It means the worlds of his films feel populated, bustling, alive. There really aren't many directors I can think of that can pull such a thing off with such ease.
It is worth noting one potential misstep in the film, and I'm still undecided just how egregious a misstep it is. One subplot involves a corrupt Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key, 'Schmigadoon!'), who is bribed by the chocolate cartel with enormous amounts of chocolate. Key is wonderful in the role, another credit to the delightful cast, but part of the comedy of his character in the latter half of the film is his excessive weight gain after eating all the chocolate. In a film that's bursting with inventiveness and filled with such goodwill, it feels out of place to have even the gentlest comedy around a character's weight. It's not enough to destabilise the film, but it did give me a moment's pause. Apart from the cheapness of such comedy and the harmful stereotype it may perpetuate (linking body shape with villainy), it also just feels like something the film could have done without with no consequence to its quality.
As each scrumdiddlyumptious moment passed in 'Wonka', I found myself succumbing to its sugar-induced euphoria. It isn't that it evokes feelings of the 1971 film or even the archaic wit of Roald Dahl's work, though there's a gentle sprinkling of both. It's that it is a beautifully conceived, rapturously executed work in its own right. Where we leave Willy at the end of the film is exactly where we expect him to be through every one of its twists and turns, but that somehow makes the ending all the more satisfying. We cheer his successes and the successes of those loved ones around him, and feel the sincerity of their hopes, fears and dreams. Rather than Paul King being swallowed into the machinery of studio filmmaking, he has found a way to bend those mechanisms to his will, maintaining his artistic integrity while delivering on legacy material at a considerable scale. There were so many moments that had me cackling, had me almost leaping with delight, had me bounding in my seat with excitement, even moving me to tears. I'm on my third listen of the damn soundtrack as I'm writing this. As this overwhelming year comes to an end, 'Wonka' has done exactly what it needed to do and delivered a magical dose of joy and sincerity, maybe its most delightful cinematic surprise. As it turns out, in the hands of Paul King, there was nothing to it.