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7 December 2023

Timothée Chalamet is a sweeter – but weaker – Wonka

The Warner Bros origin story for the chocolatier adds songs and removes nastiness from Roald Dahl’s tale – for the worse.

By David Sexton

Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company for $686m in 2021, announcing plans to create an entire Dahl Universe. It would emphasise, it promised, the “messages of the strength and possibility of young people and of the power of kindness” allegedly present in the books.

One such Netflix project is an animated origin story for the Oompa Loompas, the little men in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, described by Dahl in 1964 as black pygmies from the African jungle but soon revised. In the 1971 film with a manic Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, they were orange, with green hair. In Tim Burton’s antic 2005 film for Warner Bros, starring Johnny Depp, they were shiny-suited and robotic.

Despite the Netflix deal, Warner retained rights to the Willy Wonka character – so here’s what that allows for: Wonka, a celebratory musical in cinemas from 8 December, offering a rival origin story for the chocolatier himself. The film’s director, Paul King, and co-writer Simon Farnaby – the pair behind the triumphant Paddington films – have been recruited to replicate that success. Current idol Timothée Chalamet stars as Wonka. Hugh Grant, orange and green but still proud and grumpy (always a treat), is the solitary Oompa Loompa, the only other character linked to the original story. This time, he’s in pursuit of Wonka.

[See also: Bradley Cooper’s thrill-seeking Leonard Bernstein]

The plot King and Farnaby have confected is basic, the world they’ve cooked up pitilessly whimsical. As a boy, Wonka is inspired to chocolate-making by his sweet mum (Sally Hawkins), shortly before she dies. After seven years at sea, he arrives in the big city, to make his fortune with his magic chocolates. But he is instantly imprisoned by the monstrous landlady and laundry owner Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman going large) and her brutish mate Bleacher (a leering Tom Davis), in their subterranean workhouse. There he makes friends with his fellow victims, notably poor little orphan Noodle (endearing newcomer Calah Lane).

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When Noodle helps him escape for the day, Wonka finds that the city’s chocolate industry is in the hands of an evil cartel, led by the malevolent Arthur Slugworth (excellent Paterson Joseph) with his sidekicks Prodnose (Matt Lucas) and Ficklegruber (Mathew Baynton), both given only a few characteristics (Ficklegruber is sick in his mouth whenever he hears about poor people).

These mobsters store their chocolate surplus under the city’s cathedral (St Paul’s, actually) with the help of chocoholic priest Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson expertly phoning it in). They also command the choc-corrupted chief of police (Keegan-Michael Key), who, hilariously, gets fatter and fatter as the bribes get bigger and bigger. And they have no intention of letting the upstart Wonka challenge their monopoly.

So this is a panto, its creakiness masked by top-notch character actors giving it welly. Unlike the Paddington films, however, it features frequent song and dance routines with banal, obvious lyrics (“Have you got a sweet tooth?”) and generic, forgettable music (by Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy). Some will find that Wonka offers the experience of a West End musical without the ruinous expense. Others will just wish the hoofing and crooning would stop.

The film sadly deviates from Dahl’s original nastiness in making Wonka wholly good and utterly charming from start to finish. True, the baddies are very bad, just as Dahl always ordained, but there is none of the ambiguity and unpredictability in Wonka’s own behaviour that was so gleefully exploited by Gene Wilder. It is inexplicable from this origin story how he ever became so unnerving as well as charismatic.

There’s better Dahl to be found in four terrific adaptations of his properly unpleasant short stories for adults: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison, made by Wes Anderson, and slipped out on Netflix in September. Ralph Fiennes makes a wonderfully rodenty operative in The Rat Catcher, informing us that liquorice is made from rat’s blood, a fair antidote to the syrupy Wonka.

Otherwise over Christmas, don’t miss Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget from Aardman Animations. Nearly 20 years after the original, the chickens break in to the factory, not out, this time, for their mission impossible (in cinemas 8 December – but on Netflix a week later). Michael Mann’s biopic Ferrari, about racing in 1957, starring Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz, is out on Boxing Day, as is the hugely applauded final animation from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, The Boy and the Heron. On 5 January, there’s Priscilla, Sofia Coppola’s feminist retort to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, starring Jacob Elordi and Cailee Spaeny.

[See also: Ridley Scott’s fast and furious Napoleon biopic]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special