Wonka (2023) – Review
Director: Paul King
Cast: Timothee Chalamet, Hugh Grant, Olivia Colman
By Roger Crow
Did we really need a prequel to Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Not really. After all, there had been the much-loved 1970s version, and a Tim Burton reboot which provided a little too much backstory for one of fantasy fiction’s best-loved chocolatiers.
And yet in the hands of Paddington veterans Paul King (writer/director), Simon Farnaby (writer) and producer David Heyman, suddenly that question ends in a hard ‘Yes’. Seriously, that trio could turn the contents of a cereal packet into a compelling feature film.
And what a joy this is, because on top of the fabulous visuals, amazing cast, luscious effects and glorious sets, there are those songs by Neil Hannon. The genius behind the Divine Comedy has finally been given a movie worthy of his talents, and he does not let the side down.
Inevitably there are throwbacks to the Gene Wilder movie, and that Pure Imagination classic, which fast-tracks most grown-up viewers back to their youth. But, like all good prequels, this (“scratch that”) reverse engineers the best bits of the tale we all know and love and enhances the story.
Having brilliantly filled the desert boots of Paul Atriedes, Timothee Chalamet is light years away from the ‘oh so serious’ and yet gloriously indulgent Dune universe with a feast of a role. He sings, he dances, and he carries the whole movie on those young shoulders, and a brilliant job he does of it too. Not that he has to worry about the supporting cast as they are second to none.
Paterson Joseph, who is so good in the locally shot BBC comedy drama Boat Story, once more chews the scenery, this time as a bad guy. Then there’s Olivia Colman and Tom Davis as a duo who look like they’ve escaped from Les Mis via some candy-coated alt-universe portal. (Listen closely and your mental jukebox will sing Master of the House as they deliver their panto villain-style performances). Matt Lucas does his thing as another of the villains, and there’s a glorified cameo from one of Blighty’s most unsung writers, Simon Farnaby. (If you’ve not seen his gem of a movie Phantom of the Open, get that watched immediately).
The other connective tissue between that film and this is Sally Hawkins, another of those actors who lights up the screen with every performance, and here she is sublime as young Wonka’s mother.
The array of supporting stars is amazing. Charlotte Ritchie (swoon), Phil Wang, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carter (as the brilliantly named Abacus Crunch), Matthew Baynton… just a phenomenal array of great comic talent. And best of all is Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa. Yes, really. Playing it as straight as an arrow, the VFX and his brilliant comic timing elevate every scene to vertiginous heights of comedic brilliance.
“Great running gags”
At a little under two hours, the run time is perfect; no danger of outstaying its welcome like an everlasting gobstopper, and the finale inevitably teases another movie which may even lead up to the Dahl story which has become a staple for all young readers.
Relatively newcomer Calah Lane is excellent as the heroine Noodle, and there are some great running gags, including one about an ever-expanding copper.
Christmas has long been a time for must-see family movies, though in recent years there’s been nothing that managed to capture that ‘must see on the big screen feel’. But, like the Paddington movies, director Paul King has that rare gift of crafting beautifully engineered fantasies which tug at the heart strings and create a genuine sense of wonder. Any feeling I had that he would drop the ball after the first Paddington were soon put to bed when he made the peerless sequel.
And while this is a different confection, it should also melt the coldest heart.