Friday, December 22, 2023

Wonka: A Review (Review #1775)



I find that some films simply want to please, to be cute and whimsical. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was cute and whimsical while also being surprisingly dark. Wonka, the new prequel to the 1971 musical, leans heavily on its celebrated predecessor with mostly positive results. 

Former ship's cook Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) has arrived in an unnamed city to make his fortune as a chocolatier with delicious and fantastical sweets. Owing to his naivete and generosity, however, Wonka soon falls into the clutches of launderess Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman) and her henchman, Bleacher (Tom Davis).

Mrs. Scrubitt and Bleacher run a mix of hostel and laundry where those unfortunate enough to seek shelter there are hit with an outlandish bill owing to them not reading the fine print (Wonka being illiterate does not help). Willy soon becomes friends with Noodle (Calah Lane), a cynical orphan also working off an even larger debt. 

Willy won't be deterred in his determination to create chocolate concoctions to delight his clientele. Neither the brutal working conditions of Mrs. Scrubitt & Bleacher or the Chocolate Cartel will stop our eager, enthusiastic, eccentric confectioner. The Chocolate Cartel is headed by Mr. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), who pushes the other cartel members into crushing all newcomers. They also bribe the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to do their bidding. Joining forces with the other Scrubitt slaves, Wonka works his magic to fulfill his destiny. To do that, he not only needs to take on and take down the chocolate cartel, but also face off against Lofty (Hugh Grant), a bitter Oompah Loompa set on getting justice from the hapless Wonka.

It looks like Willy Wonka's dreams are about to come true, but there is sabotage afoot. Will Willy thwart the Chocolate Cartel's machinations? Will he be able to disable the duplicitous Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson) and his monastery of chocoholic monks to make his dreams come true and keep his promise to his late mother (Sally Hawkins)? 

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a beloved film, something that is close to the hearts of many. As such, trying to create something of an origin story for this enigmatic figure is a tough task. I say "something of an origin story" because Wonka does not go into great detail about his past. We start with him arriving on a ship, singing the opening number A Hatful of Dreams. We learn later on that he is driven by a desire to honor his late mother's memory, with his idea that if he succeeds, she would metaphorically if not literally be beside him one last time. He mentions briefly that he first dreamt of being a magician.

However, apart from that, Willy Wonka is still a bit of a mystery. How he came to discover all his fantastical chocolates (let alone make them) or how his top hat can conjure up all sorts of things is left unexplained. I think on the whole this was a good idea in Simon Farnaby and director Paul King's screenplay. We get bits and pieces (particularly his love for his mother as the primary motivation) but yet still have a bit of mystery and whimsy for Willy.

Wonka works hard to be whimsical and colorful, perhaps a bit too hard. Try as it might, there were few moments of genuine wonder. Of particular note is A World of Your Own, one of the few musical moments that does stick with the viewer for a while. Everyone involved both in front of and behind the camera work hard to make A World of Your Own into something close to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory's signature song Pure Imagination (which Wonka echoes, quotes and reinterprets at the beginning and end). 

Yet, despite its best and determined efforts, A World of Your Own does not quite hit the mark. I think it is because the number takes place on what looks like what it is: a film set. It is not a bad set, but like in a lot of Wonka, there seems to be a bit of magic missing. It is not for lack of trying. It is just that there is something a bit mechanical about things.

As a side note, I personally am astonished that A World of Your Own or another song, For a Moment, were not shortlisted for the Best Original Song Academy Award. Those are probably the best songs in Wonka in my view. To think that an original musical will not be so much as nominated is quite a puzzle for me. 

I think a lot of Wonka felt like it was more for the stage than for the screen. Curiously, the first half was top-heavy with musical numbers to where by the time we got around to the fourth song I began to openly wonder if a musical could have too many songs. To be fair, some of Neil Hannon's songs had clever lyrics. In Sweet Tooth, the Chocolate Cartel's ode to bribery, I was impressed on how it made the "conscience nonsense" rhyme work. In a reprise of You Never Had Chocolate Like This, the line "hair repair éclair" struck me as clever. 

A musical rises and falls on its songbook, and Wonka is wonky on that part. It is not that the songs are terrible per se. It is that they are not particularly memorable. For a Moment was moving, and I think A World of Your Own was meant to be the showstopper. It was good but not great. I also did like the opening A Hatful of Dreams, but on the whole I do not know whether they will be embraced in the same way something like Pure Imagination, I've Got a Golden Ticket or The Candy Man from the 1971 film will be.

I am loath to compare the original with a remake, adaptation or prequel. Wonka, however, wants us to not forget its origins. The film starts by quoting Pure Imagination and we get new lyrics of that and Oompa Loompa throughout the film. It is hard to build something original and separate when you keep going back to the more familiar first feature.

I cannot fault the cast. Chalamet dives in with an almost manic glee, embracing the wackiness of Wonka while still finding gentle moments of tenderness when remembering his mother. His voice was fine if not particularly great. I would say it was a bit gentle, but I am willing to cut a little slack on that department. If anything, Chalamet was game for things. 

Lane's Noodle, essentially his costar, was pleasant in her role. I do wish they had not made her so bitter and cynical but instead more willing to embrace wonder and magic. That is more the screenplay's fault than Lane's.

Coleman and Davis embraced the overt camp of Mrs. Scrubitt and Bleacher, though they faded away when no longer necessary to the plot. It does become curious that after being told that they both had sharp eyes on their de facto slaves, they weren't attentive once they were hoodwinked into falling in love. Granted, the plot made clear how that was done, but it did not convince me. Grant was surprisingly delightful as Lofty even if his part was small (no pun intended).

A lot of Wonka had the characters be a bit cartoonish, but given that everyone was aware that things were meant to be exaggerated, I do not find that to be a flaw. From Key's increasingly obese Police Chief to Joseph's grandly silly Slugworth, the actors played the parts as required of them. I can find flaw in Atkinson's corrupt cleric only in that he was underused. 

He did have one of the funniest moments in Wonka however, when a telephone call interrupts his funeral obituary. "Hello, pulpit," he answers, leading to general laughter.

Wonka was to my mind charming and sweet, trying its best to be delightful. I did find it was trying perhaps a bit hard to be overtly charming, sweet and delightful. However, I was pleased enough with the final product to think well enough of it. While I doubt it will match let alone overtake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in being beloved, Wonka is a pleasant enough companion piece. 

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