There is no universe where the phrase “young hot Willy Wonka” needs to exist. It is a hellish phrase, one where no two words feel like they belong together. Yet we live in a world where IP is king, and therefore we must be subjected to whatever insane flight of fancy some corporate CEO managed to come up with. This was my mindset going into Wonka, and to be fair, I’m not quite wrong. “Young hot Willy Wonka” should not be a thing. Yet despite its unholy premise, director Paul King has brought the same magic to this wondrous musical that he did to the Paddington movies. And the result is the best children’s entertainment since…well, since Paddington 2.
After sailing around the world to find the best, most magical chocolate-brewing ingredients and methods known to man, a whimsical young man named Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) returns home to England to bring the gift of chocolate to the world. However, upon his arrival, he realizes he faces an uphill battle. All chocolate making in the city is run by the Chocolate Cartel, a secret society led by businessmen Prodnose (Matt Lucas), Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton), and the evil Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), who horde their monopoly in a secret vault with the aid of the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson).
Furthermore, left destitute by the machinations of the Chocolate Cartel, Willy finds himself forced into indentured servitude to the greedy Mrs. Scrubit (Olivia Colman) and her henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis). Yet adversity won’t keep the young dreamer down. Trapped in his washroom prison, Willy begins plotting his meteoric rise to the top of the chocolate-making world, with the help of his fellow inmates, a young orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane), and perhaps even the aid of a mysterious little orange man named Lofty (Hugh Grant), who has been hunting Wonka for years.
The most shocking thing about Wonka is how committed King feels to the world he’s created. From the sets to the design to the story, it feels like someone ran Oliver, Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables, and about a dozen English legends through a confectionary blender to create what, on paper, should be a garish nightmare. Instead, it all miraculously blends together in the most delightful ways. The sets are scrumptious, the effects are delightful, and it feels truly exciting to be living in this world. Sure, not every musical number is memorable (although they’re at least expertly staged), and it’s more whimsical than weird (Willy Wonka’s trademark). But for the same reasons that 2017’s The Greatest Showman worked, so too does Wonka. In fact, I’d dare say it’s better than Hugh Jackman’s splashy family feature.
More importantly, however, is the way that Wonka manages to actively delight in its childlike storytelling. Somewhere during the runtime, it dawned on me that King has infused this film with the same energy as a Muppet flick. It’s slightly irreverent, consistently witty and delightful, the cast is game for everything, and yet no matter how childish it gets, it never panders. It embraces its own goofiness in an era where so many children’s films lean into snark and self-awareness.
How many films from Illumination or Dreamworks or even Disney would dare to have a silly over-the-top villain song from a group of pompous scoundrels called The Chocolate Cartel, or allow a scene as clever as a piece of chocolate that simulates getting drunk on a Friday night? The answer is “none of them,” because so many studios – even ones that have a proven track record – treat their audiences, old and young, as an algorithm, and not an audience. And sure, one could theoretically dissect the silly plot for a fascinating sociopolitical undercurrent, but why bother? This story is entertaining enough in its own silliness, and that’s all it needs to be.
The film hinges on the performance of superstar Chalamet as the titular chocolatier, and it is a fascinating performance to dissect. For starters, Chalamet does not play Willy Wonka in the same way as either Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp. In fact, it’s hard to say that his interpretation feels like any iteration of Willy Wonka – it is hard to imagine this good-hearted adventurer going on to torture a group of naughty children. Furthermore, the young star chooses to play this role not as a star, or as an actor, but with the energy of a high schooler giving it his all in the school play. But what’s crazy about these insane choices is that they work. It’s a cute, charismatic performance that easily carries the film.
Yet Chalamet is not alone in bringing his A-game to his performance. The entire cast is down for the inherent silliness. This ranges from Lane, who is a charming straight man to Wonka’s almost-naive flights of fancy, to a veritable who’s who of comedians and popular British performers, including Jim Carter, Natasha Rothwell, and Rich Fulcher as Willy’s first friends in the city. The villains, meanwhile, are all delightfully cartoonish, with standouts including Paterson Joseph’s Slugworth, Tom Davis as the incompetent Bleacher, and especially the great Olivia Colman as Mrs. Scrubit. Oh, and Hugh Grant playing a posh Oompa-Loompa is the stuff that nightmares are made of – naturally, I loved him.
Wonka is just delightful family entertainment all around. Like its titular character, it is full of surprises, wonder, and delight. This is the reason critics so often lambaste and lament children’s films; for why should we settle for mediocrity when just a little effort can make all the difference? Wonka is note for note, pound for pound one of the better acted, better directed, and better sung children’s films or musicals in recent years, and should serve as fun for the whole family. And I for one ate it right up.
Wonka is now playing exclusively in theaters