Paul King’s “Wonka” isn’t a movie about chocolate so much as it is an actual piece of chocolate. It’s a great, big, hollow confection, lacking in any of the flavor and ingenuity that made Willy Wonka and his candy so famous in the first place. “Wonka” is so sickeningly sweet you’ll wish your theater’s concession stand sold big buckets of salt. (Then again, they kind of do.)
“Wonka” is a prequel to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the 1971 adaptation of Road Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It was a box office flop that eventually became a cult classic and, later, a mainstream classic. In the original film, Gene Wilder played Wonka as a mischievous weirdo whose fabulous factory was equal parts cute and terrifying. Wonka himself was a weird potpourri of childlike wonder and passive-aggressive meanness who was just as likely to cruelly torture a child for the sins of their parents as he was to actually give those kids any chocolate.
King’s prequel, starring Timothée Chalamet as the title character, never once hints at the cynical Wonka he will become, but it does explain how he became a successful candy entrepreneur and how he met an Oompa Loompa for the first time. And in the strangest example of unnecessary foreshadowing in prequel history, because Wilder’s Wonka was well-versed in literature, we have to watch Timothée Chalamet’s Wonka learn how to read.
“Wonka” begins with Willy Wonka at the end of a long voyage. He’s learned candy-making skills and picked up rare ingredients from all over the world. But before he can open his chocolate shop he makes the mistake of spending the night at an inn run by Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis), who trick him into signing a contract and force him to work in their Dickensian laundry prison.
Wonka, bubbling with “gee whiz” energy, sneaks out every day with the aid of a plucky orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane). He plans to sell so much chocolate that he can buy out all the prisoners’ contracts. His candy is so magical that making money should be easy, but this town is run by a trio of corrupt chocolatiers — Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton) and Prodnose (Matt Lucas) — who enlist the chocoholic Chief of Police (Keegan- Michael Key) to crack down on Wonka’s operation.
Paul King’s beloved “Paddington” movies have in no way made him the ideal director for a Road Dahl movie. “Wonka” has the sweet, good nature of a “Paddington” installment, but not the material that justifies it. By framing “Wonka” like another saga of an innocent ne’er-do-bad who wins over the community with his boundless optimism and delicious snacks, King’s new film fails to adopt any identity of its own. It’s one thing to abandon the source material, it’s another to replace that source material with empty platitudes left over from other, better films.
Timothée Chalamet is a strange choice for Wonka. He’s got the sweetness down to a science, but none of the bitterness that tempers that. His lanky Dick Van Dyke-ian dance moves range from respectable to “at least he tried,” and his singing voice is a bit underwhelming. He looks for all the world like a movie star who nabbed a role that was meant for a Broadway star.
But what Chalamet has in great abundance is enthusiasm. He acts like he’s auditioning to be a new imaginary friend for every kid in the audience. By the film’s conclusion he successfully wins us over, or possibly wears us down. He may not be not Gene Wilder’s Wonka, and thank goodness he’s not Johnny Depp’s Wonka, but he’s a cuddly creation in his own right.
The production design on “Wonka” looks an awful lot like a leftover soundstage from “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” which is an unfortunate reminder that this movie probably could have used some Muppets in it. When Pepe the Prawn would give your movie some much needed edge, then your movie is already made of felt. (At least it’s better than “Tom and Jerry: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which is not only a real movie but it also goes out of its way to be canon, so technically we all just have to deal with that.)
There are songs in “Wonka,” but outside of the revival of “Pure Imagination,” none of them strike a chord. There’s also a plot involving sabotaged chocolates, a secret conspiracy and an elaborate heist, but it doesn’t seem like we’re really supposed to care. We’re just supposed to consume.
And, admittedly, it’s pretty easy to consume “Wonka.” After all, it’s just a piece of candy. But it’s the kind of candy that would make Willy Wonka sick to his stomach. “Wonka” is the sort of safe and corporate product that the hero of “Wonka” says we shouldn’t settle for. So take him at his word and don’t.
“Wonka” hits theaters on December 15.