Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
(CNN) — More a product of practical commerce than pure imagination, “Wonka” turns out to be a quirky, intermittently tasty confection, featuring Timothée Chalamet as the young inventor/magician/chocolatier in a super-caloric origin story. The star gives it his all, including plenty of not-bad/not-great singing, in a film that’s at its best when leveraging the abundant goodwill of the 1971 classic.
Indeed, “Wonka” opens with quiet musical strains of “Pure Imagination,” and those catchy tunes from the Gene Wilder version eclipse the not-very-memorable new songs composed by Neil Hannon, which tend to rely on slightly groan-inducing lyrics, like Wonka singing to a young girl named Noodle (Calah Lane) that “some people don’t, and some people doodle.”
Hewing toward Wilder (and wisely not Tim Burton’s darker 2005 take with Johnny Depp), Chalamet’s Willy Wonka steps off a boat from parts unknown with little more than a song in his heart, near-mystical chocolate-making skills and, as he sings, “a hatful of dreams.”
Despite phones and old cars, the city where he disembarks has a Dickensian feel to it, including a boarding house run by an accomplished grifter played by Olivia Colman, one of the many members of English acting royalty who pop in, along with Jim Carter (“Downton Abbey”), Rowan Atkinson and Sally Hawkins, much like the Harry Potter series.
As for villains, they consist of a trio of businessmen who head the chocolate cartel and see the fresh-faced Wonka and his divine gravity-defying treats as a threat to their enterprise. The de facto leader is named, appropriately, Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), and their corruption includes assistance from the local police chief (Keegan-Michael Key).
Director Paul King oversaw the “Paddington” movies, which helps explain the rather inspired choice to feature Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa, who holds a grudge against Wonka for an unintended slight. While much has been made of Grant’s casting, the now-diminutive character doesn’t arrive until halfway through the movie and “the little orange man,” as he’s described, gives the whole enterprise a big shot of adrenalin every time he shows up.
If Wilder’s Wonka was mischievously weird and a trifle mysterious, Chalamet’s take is more relentlessly upbeat, even in the face of crushing adversity, at one point channeling Blanche DuBois by saying that he has “relied on the kindness of strangers.”
Still, “Wonka” only sporadically conjures cinematic magic, and most of those moments owe an oversized debt to tying directly into the earlier movie based on Roald Dahl’s story, as opposed to carving its own path for a new generation.
First with “Dune” and now this, Chalamet has certainly become a key player in Warner Bros.’s efforts to breathe new life into venerable franchises, and this role arguably suits him better than the former.
Although mostly appropriate for a younger audience, the irony is “Wonka” will probably play best among those who feel the strongest connections to a movie that premiered more than 50 years ago. Chalk that up to a movie that delivers some playfully clever elements but that, in terms of standing on its own, never entirely finds its sweet spot.
“Wonka” premieres December 15 in US theaters and December 6 in a several international territories. It’s being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery, and rated PG.
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