Life + Arts

Wonka (2023) Review: Is it sour or sweet?

A bright red colored top hat on a purple striped background. Sitting next to the top hat is a red and black wrapper that reads "Wonka Bar"

Jose Gonzalez-Campelo/The Cougar

Editor’s note: We did mean Gene Wilder, not Hackman.

For many viewers, the announcement of yet another beloved classic receiving a prequel likely elicited groans and eye rolls. This reaction is more than fair, especially considering how swamped the box office has been lately with needless sequels and reboots. But underneath its corporate wrapper, “Wonka” has a surprisingly sweet filling that’s sure to leave viewers hungry for more.

Reviving a film as magical as “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” is hard enough as it is. Between Mel Stuart’s brilliant direction, Gene Wilder’s charming yet unnerving portrayal of Willy Wonka and the utterly enchanting musical stylings of Bricusse and Newley, the film is regarded as a classic and for good reason. An entire generation of children fondly remember the delight they felt at seeing the chocolate river for the first time, and it’s nearly impossible to get “Pure Imagination” out of your head after you first hear it.

“Wonka” is, of course, not the first attempt to try to rekindle the magic of Roald Dahl’s classic story. The 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” attempted to lean into a somewhat creepier approach to the story, with Johnny Depp’s Wonka bordering on downright scary at points. With two films already covering the sweet and sour of Wonka’s Wonderful World, how is yet another one supposed to distinguish itself?

As strange as it may sound, “Wonka” works best when it decides to lean away from the films that came before. Timothee Chalamet puts on a performance all his own as the titular Willy Wonka. He’s not as creepy as Depp nor as aloof as Wilder’s Wonka, but he doesn’t have to be. The greatest strength of the film is his ability to stand on his own as something new.

Rather than trying to rehash Charlie’s adventures in Wonka’s chocolate factory, the film follows a younger, more idealistic Willy Wonka at the start of his career. The relatively naive Wonka quickly finds himself in trouble and has to partner with a young orphan girl named Noodle (Calah Lane) and a collection of other charming characters to make all their dreams come true.

Chalamet’s performance as Wonka is reflective of the film as a whole. He brings an immense amount of joyful energy to the role that contrasts wonderfully with the more jaded Willy Wonka we’ve already seen. Both Chalamet’s Wonka and all the other elements in the film work because they feel fresh, yet familiar.

Despite not being directly based on one of Roald Dahl’s books, “Wonka” oozes with the same kind of childlike wonder and whimsical energy that made the original film feel so magical. The musical numbers are extravagant, the set designs look like they were ripped right out of a children’s book and the chocolate will make you want to reach through the screen and take a bite.

You can’t have bright colors without a little darkness, however. After all, our secondary protagonist is a British orphan down on her luck, and what good is a character like that without a cartoonishly evil villain to oppose her?

When it comes to over-the-top villains, “Wonka” delivers in spades. Early on in the film, Willy finds himself deep in debt to the nefarious boardinghouse owners Tom Davis’s Bleacher and Olivia Colman’s Mrs. Scrubitt.

Colman and Davis put on a fantastically hammy performance that’s reminiscent of the cruel headmistress Mrs. Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.” The two of them are boisterous, cruel to children and horrendously dimwitted. This all adds up to a duo that’s equal parts ridiculous yet somehow charming.

Bleacher and Scrubitt are far from the only obstacles our heroes face in their journey, however. Willy’s remarkable talent for chocolate-making ends up alarming Paterson Joseph’s Slugworth, Matt Lucas’s Prodnose and Matthew Baynton’s Fickelgruber, the town’s resident chocolatiers.

The villainous trio, alongside the corrupt chief of police, is driven by a singular determination to maintain control of the city’s chocolate-making business. They firmly believe that chocolate should be simple and unsurprising, which means that Wonka’s whimsical treats pose a serious risk to their bottom line.

This approach to writing villains works heavily in the film’s favor. Rather than leaning into a dark and gritty approach or skewing too close to real-world issues, they manage to pose a serious threat while also being just fantastical enough that you can laugh at them.

It’s clear that the powerhouse actors portraying these three were given a lot of leeway, resulting in some utterly delightful performances. They strut around in ridiculously colored suits — Fickelgruber literally retches whenever anyone mentions “the poor” — and all three of them spend quite a bit of time sneering and plotting.

As much fun as the classic children’s book villain archetype can be, its inclusion in the film does raise some questions. Notably, Scrubitt’s conventionally “ugly” look is regularly played for laughs, as is the chief of police gaining a ludicrous amount of weight after eating too much chocolate.

Associating overweight or “ugly” characters with villainy, especially in contrast to the more conventionally attractive Chalamet, seems like a cliche that should perhaps be left in the past. In fact, this area seems to be where the film starts to struggle. For as much as it treads new ground, it still struggles to escape the shadow of the past in some areas.

For one, the musical numbers were terrifically fun, but very few of them were quite as memorable as the songs from the original film. Using mostly original songs with only limited references to the iconic 1971 soundtrack should be commended, to be sure.

However, it seems unlikely that much of the film’s score is likely to be remembered outside of the occasional TikTok trend, which poses a problem in an era where trailers intentionally hide that films are musicals to avoid alienating general audiences.

Similarly, Hugh Grant’s performance as Lofty the Oompa Loompa is fairly enjoyable. But his character feels like it serves no real purpose other than to connect this film to the 1971 movie and to clumsily rewrite the Oompa Loompas to no longer be essentially slaves.

“Wonka” isn’t perfect, to be sure. At times, it struggles to justify its existence in comparison to the films and books it draws from. But it also has a surprising amount of spirit that keeps it from feeling like just another cash grab. So if you’re in the mood for a treat, keep chewing on it for a bit: you might just find something you like in the center.

Malachi Key is a Journalism senior who can be reached at [email protected].


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