“My dear boy, do you ask a fish how it swims?Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Or a bird how it flies?
No sirree, you don’t! They do it because they were born to do it. Just like Willy Wonka was born to be a candy man and you look like you were born to be a Wonkarer.”
I never expected to write something about the Wonka film, but as it continues to slowly seep through my brain and multiple people asked me stuff along the lines of “Wait, you liked the Wonka film? Come on”, fate has brought it upon me to sit down and write out my thoughts.
Yes, I liked the Wonka film. Why? Well just like Winkelman in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from 1971, I was just born to be a Wonkarer. I’ve seen the original film countless times, to the point where I am able to accurately speak with the characters, read the two original books and Dahl’s “fun facts” multiple times, studied all the fun facts about the film and read the memoir of the actress playing Veruca Salt in which she recounts her thoughts on the filming process. I was also deeply involved with the fandom of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Broadway Musical, engaging in online discourse and conversations with the cast. So, I’d say I am “into the lore” of Willy Wonka.
I distinctly remember first reading about the production announcement in 2016, eagerly putting the film on my watchlist and now I sort of can’t believe I’ve actually seen this film in 2023. But now we need to get into an actual review seeing as we’ve got so much time and so little to talk about. Wait. Strike that. Reverse it.
Wonka is a musical-comedy film directed by Paul King, starring Timothee Chalamet in the titular role of Willy Wonka, as the young chocolate maker tries to make a name for himself and starts his business which would later evolve into the Wonka emporium we know and love from the story with Charlie Bucket. The film revolves around Willy Wonka’s naivety and his certainness of being an amazing chocolate maker and the evil-doings of a chocolate cartel consisting of Wonka’s well-known competitors Slugworth, Fickelgruber and Prodnose. Along the way, Wonka gets in trouble with Olivia Coleman’s fantastic character Mrs. Scrubitt and befriends the likes of other troubled souls like the orphan Noodle or Abacus Crunch. After multiple highs and lows in the story Willy finally gets his chocolate Factory in the end and (seemingly voluntarily) gets the Oompa Loompas to work for him. Big up to 2023 Willy Wonka for not enslaving a whole race of living beings.
From the get-go the film knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be: a lighthearted musical set in a Roald Dahl world. Even though Dahl died in 1990 and had nothing to do with the development of this story other than creating some of the characters, Paul King and Simon Farnaby achieve greatness in portraying a world so rich and Dahl-esque that can only but enchant the audience. The musical aspect of the film is equally satisfying as the songs written by Neil Hannon are charming, catchy, and really incorporate Dahl’s own use of silly words and overall tenor. Hannon plays with words and creates new ones in a similar way to Dahl’s writing style that just fits so well into the world, I mean “Well there’s chocolate and there’s chocolate, but only Wonka’s makes your eyes pop out their sockelets. Put your hand into your pockelet, get yourself some Wonka chocolate.” Come on, give this man his Oscar now!
Every song is distinctly unique while still capturing on overall style and vibe of the film. My personal song highlights (in no particular order): A World of Your Own, Scrub Scrub, A Hatful of Dreams and You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This
I cannot wait to greet “Most listened to Artist: Timothee Chalamet“ in my Spotify Wrapped next year because let’s face it: that guy can sing. Of course I feel like there is a hint of autotune in his voice, similar to Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast, but far less obvious and, I mean, at least after Timothee’s countless ventures into music with his rap alter ego Lil Timmy T and songs like Statistics, we know he can carry a tune.
Paul King injects this film and the world of Wonka with so much heart and detail, which reflects just wonderfully on screen. Similar to the original film, the world is set in a space not bound to a specific country and also so timeless, but yet still keeping that somewhat outdated charm. While it doesn’t exactly apply to this concept, the keyword here is magical realism. Wonka creates a realm in which logic and reality are dominant but it gives magic and whimsy enough wiggle room to blossom and create enthralling moments for the audience. Although in my understanding, the film isn’t necessarily a direct tie-in/origin story to the 1971 film but merely a usage of known characters, the created whimsy results in fun ways the film does in fact reference or tie into Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. Take the scene where Willy decides to stay in Mrs. Scrubbit’s Hotel, as he reads the clauses, the contract unfurls showing an ungodly amount of fine print, of which the font continues to decrease in size. This is a reference to the initial scene in the chocolate factory, as the children are supposed to sign a contract, which is reminiscent of Mrs Scrubbit’s style in contract making. Other little things include the way Willy sticks his walking stick into the ground making it stand on its own, referencing Wilder’s Wonka and also Willy’s invention of the “Wild and Wonderful Wishy-Washy Wonka Walker”, seemingly insinuating the birth of the idea for the WonkaWash in the 1971 film. The magical world of Wonka is full of whimsy and heart, sprawling the perfect canvas for a character like Willy Wonka to live and thrive, making it difficult to feel anything but joy as the character acts on screen.
While everyone in the film gives an amazing performance, I was personally enthralled by Olivia Coleman, not only because she is one of my favorite actresses of all time, but because of her character Mrs. Scrubbit. As I am sitting here writing and truly having trouble processing my thoughts because of how much I enjoyed her character, a character so perfectly Dahl-esque I am truly in awe of her originality. Mrs. Scrubbit is a horrendous woman in the likes of Mrs. Trunchbull from Matilda, seeing that they both have a similar punishment style and steal every scene they are in. Most importantly for me the role can be seen as a huge audition for Coleman herself. Mrs. Scrubbit, a disgraced single woman running a treacherous scheme in the back alleys of a seemingly British town, does that ring any musical bells? Or should I say, does that smell of any pies? It’s painfully obvious that Mrs. Scrubbit is just a different version of the beloved character of Mrs. Lovett from the musical Sweeney Todd, and honestly I’m not complaining. Coleman was so fantastic in her role I’d love to see her take on her own version of Mrs. Lovett and be as evil and raunchy as she wants. That would make another crossover with the Wonkaverse and Sweeneyverse, seeing as Johnny Depp portrayed the titular roles in both films and Helena Bonham Carter portrayed Mrs Lovett and Charlie’s mother respectively.
Although Mrs. Scrubbit hardly does any singing she steals the show and I would honestly watch a full film of her just doing stuff, as it’s just wildly entertaining.
And going over from Mrs. Scrubbit to my other highlight of the film: Timothee Chalamet. It is no secret amongst the people that I am a fan of Timothee Chalamet and as a huge critic of what happens with the character of Willy Wonka, I was torn yet elated when the casting news broke. When watching the film, it becomes abundantly clear that, frankly, Timothee Chalamet’s face and fame precede him. While his portrayal of the character is fun and quirky, his acting is not too much and feels very grounded, I can’t overlook that Timothee Chalamet is there on screen. I am never suspended in disbelief that Willy Wonka is in front of me, but rather reminded that the studios needed to cast a big face to fuel ticket sales. To be honest, for my enjoyment of the movie this is not a bad thing. While I can understand that this bothers some people I couldn’t care less because to me it is such a joy watching Timothee Chalamet being a quirky little dude under the guise of Willy Wonka. I also enjoyed that this version of Willy Wonka is truly a standalone version of the character. My biggest fear going into the film was Timothee trying too hard to be somebody he isn’t (Gene Wilder), but he truly makes Willy Wonka his own, elevating the film to a different level of being able to enjoy a brand new story with familiar characters that doesn’t want to shoehorn in plot to integrate the 2023 version seamlessly with the 1971 film. Willy is young, ambitious, caring, heartfelt and makes mistakes which encapsulates the core of the film: the heart. To be honest, the film got to me multiple times, making me tear up. Of course, this is mainly fueled by nostalgia, but Timothee’s performance is at times truly gut-wrenching to me. The tears didn’t stop as we hear Timothee’s rendition of the iconic song Pure Imagination and while he doesn’t have the same cadence and ease as Gene Wilder as he performs it, I was overwhelmed by a cold flash down my spine resulting in my admiration of Timothee Chalamet to grow by an unprecedented amount.
However, even the thought of a Wonka prequel film fills my brain with a sense of dread, a dread that yet again another beloved film is viciously gutted and tried to be reanimated by franchising the crap out of it, with remake after remake. In the age where seemingly the nostalgia machine is the only thing Hollywood knows, I feel like this sense of dread is justified. Looking at franchises like Star Wars or Ghostbusters, Hollywood only seems to create a mediocre story, slap in some familiar faces like the original actors or deep-fake dead people alive again to easily try to encapsulate audiences. But Wonka’s strength lies in its originality, as there is no form of „nostalgia resurrection“ to be found here and I am so incredibly grateful for this. Wonka confronts the audience with a new world, new characters and new conflicts, while still (albeit very lightly) reminding the viewers of their own personal histories with the characters. If Hollywood does want to continue cashing into the nostalgia factor and produce never ending remakes, this is the way to do it. This is not the 50th version of Jurassic Park, in which you can tell it has been hastily produced for the money, but Wonka has a soul. Wonka has a child-like innocence, which I wanted to see reminding me of my own childhood and my love of Willy Wonka.
There are also things I dislike about this film such as its overall pacing. The film doesn’t feel too long, it just feels uneven, giving some parts I found irrelevant too much weight in the story and others definitely fell short, like the chocolate cartel and heist elements. Balancing this could have resulted in two positive outcomes on the film:
a) It would have allowed Rowan Atkinson’s character a much bigger screen time, which I thought was sadly a huge waste and so much unfulfilled potential. The character of a chocoholic priest, who is the head of a chocolate-loving monk mafia, sounds like so much fun and I would have loved to see more of him on screen.
2) It also could have increased the weight of the villains of the story, who were kind of… just there. I see how the film tried to do this by having Slugworth be related to Noodle but as this revelation is enacted upon very late in the film, it feels like a desperate attempt to tie in the villains into a bigger scheme then they are. Looking back in hindsight, the villains were definitely not as memorable as I had hoped, and while I still enjoyed them, I feel like they could have been more fleshed out.
Speaking of flat characters, some of my biggest dislikes pertain to multiple characters being used as comic relief such as Matt Lucas’ character Prodnose, Keegan Michael Key’s Chief of Police, Larry Chucklesworth and Hugh Grant as the Oompa Loompa. It is in times like these where you remind yourself that you are watching a Paul King film and he just somehow added in his friends into the film for some reason. While Prodnose did get some chuckles out of me, his character feels annoying and overdone, which can also be attributed to my disliking of Matt Lucas. Also, as a side note I found it awfully strange that his costume and character design was weirdly reminiscent of a historical figure that is connected to WWII… I’m just saying they could have given him a different beard, that wouldn’t have been so hard.
Keegan Michael Key’s Chief of Police feels like… Keegan Michael Key. His character is just there and doesn’t really do anything for me, seeing as he obviously is just there for the comedic relief and seeing the running joke of him becoming more overweight over the course of the film, resulting in him being unable to do his job is just infuriating to me.
In my opinion one of the worst characters was Larry Chucklesworth, a failed comedian trapped in Mrs Scrubbit’s Washhouse. This character was so unnecessary and felt so out of place, I really don’t know why King and Farnaby decided to include him. His sole purpose is comic relief, however he does this with comedy that doesn’t match the tone of the film. With his jokes along the lines of „That’s what my wife said before she left me“ it sort of feels like they were trying to create a children’s version of Jerry Seinfeld and I am absolutely baffled by this decision. Larry Chucklesworth should have been the one to be exposed to all of Willy’s failed chocolates because I wish him nothing but pain.
I don’t want to talk about Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa or should I say Hugh-mpa Loompa too much as he is just fine, I enjoyed him more than I thought but also found him incredibly annoying. Especially as his character frequently entered the visual uncanny valley, so that I didn’t want to look at him. I’d rather have a complete CGI character with a wacky face than Hugh Grant’s face plastered onto something. That being said, Grant’s voice is exquisite for the vibe and tone that the Oompa Loompa should portray, especially in regards to the 1971 film.
Side note: I experienced a big break in immersion when they meet Noodle’s mother and she lives in the Oxford Campus library? I don’t know if that’s a me thing, but I feel like that building is so overused I cannot stand to see it in films anymore…
The final gripe I have with the film might be one which you would expect the film should get right but: the chocolates looked hideous. I understand that Willy’s confections are supposed to be wacky and crazy but those chocolates were the most CGI chocolates I have ever seen. Especially the way that Wonka creates his chocolate seems so out of character to what we know from Wilder’s version. Wilder’s Wonka added the whimsy into making his candies, throwing in a pair of shoes for “the kick” or adding in a clock as one “must not waste time” – comparing this fun experience to the 2023 version, Chalamet’s Wonka is so bland and boring. The CGI fluid simulations running through tubes to create candy is no way near as fun and his ingredients seemed so unattainable and magical that I was yearning for a similar scene as “The Inventing Room” in the original film. The visual aesthetic of the chocolate in the new version is a complete and utter let down seeing as they don’t really resemble candies in the slightest and especially because in the 1971 version the chocolate looked spectacular. I would still give up a lot to try a Wonka Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar or a Fudge Mallow, but I would not even eat the 2023 chocolates for free. The chocolates tried to be so special and extra that they lost sight of what they are actually supposed to be, however, the ending of the film definitely fulfills my visual thirst for chocolate (and Timmy T) on screen, making for a worthy culmination of the film.
While some of these issues are more prominent than others and can sometimes be overlooked, it all pays off when Timothee begins to sign Pure Imagination and step into his chocolate factory for the first time. An explosion of joy and happiness, as colors fill the screen and the factory magically builds itself on screen. This to me is pure catharsis.
Wonka is a joy to watch and a highlight of 2023. A lighthearted family musical that enchants and leads you into a mystical world. If you enjoyed the Matilda Musical on Netflix you’ll surely enjoy this. As a Wonkarer I can’t express the joy this film has brought me, the character of Willy Wonka is so close to my heart and ingrained in my brain and this movie has only deepened my love for the whole Wonkaverse franchise. Might I add a franchise (disregarding Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator) which does not have a single bad adaptation or interpretation of its source material.
If you are craving a light-hearted treat over the Christmas holidays Wonka is definitely the perfect confection. I for one cannot wait to stuff my face with chocolate while rewatching this movie over and over and over again.