Life & Culture

The young Willy Wonka review: Serene but shallow

John Nathan’s disappointed by a bland prequel starring Timothee Chalamet





Reviewed by John Nathan

Many films featuring a powerful cartel who murder the opposition to profit from addicts are indebted to Brian De Palma’s Scarface. This one, however, is rooted in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The cartel here is a triumvirate of chocolate-manufacturing fat-cats, one of whom is Matt Lucas’s Mr Prodnose, whose funny running gag is that he spells out the deadly intentions euphemistically expressed by his peers.

“You mean kill him,” clarifies Prodnose.

Their target is Timothée Chalamet’s young Wonka, whose chocolates are not only the most delicious ever made but have magical qualities, such as making those who eat them rise like a hot air balloon.

Director Paul King’s starry and musicalised origin story of Roald Dahl’s character is set mostly in a city as pretty as Prague and as dangerous as Dickens’s London.

Chalamet is immensely watchable, yet nothing in his performance explains why he grows up to be Gene Wilder’s much more interesting Wonka, who simultaneously encourages and punishes greed. Chalamet has no such complexity. His Wonka responds to the various versions of human cruelty he encounters with nothing more dynamic than serene disappointment.

After setting out to make his fortune with 12 silver sovereigns and a “hatful of dreams” he is tricked by his cockney landlady (Olivia Colman who we now know will make an excellent Mrs Lovett for the next remake of Sweeney Todd) into slaving at her laundry business.

Unlike King’s brilliant versions of Paddington, his latest almost completely lacks tension because we are never in doubt that Wonka’s magical powers will save the day. None of Joby Talbot’s songs are as beautiful as Antony Newley’s Pure Imagination from the original Wonka movie, the melody of which is happily used here as a musical’s motif.

(This is also true of the stage musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in which Marc Shaiman’s ordinary score is saved by Newley’s tune.)

Granted, King’s “confection” as the titles call it, is as ravishingly made as a Fabergé egg. But it is also about as pointless.

Only Hugh Grant’s Oompa-Loompa is priceless.

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