Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

People who love musicals often find themselves in a Sharks vs. Jets standoff with those who don’t. I recall a highly intelligent but perhaps overly literal sixth-grade classmate defending his stance with a sniff: “People don’t just spontaneously burst into song on the street.” He was right, but also so, so wrong. Without musicals, the world would be much more miserable than it already is; they’re one of the great joys of theater and film. But essential to loving them is also reserving the right to call out a desperate, overly calculated one when you see it. And the charm offensive that is Wonka toils way too hard for its meager pleasures. It may leave you feeling more worked over than invigorated.

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Wonka—directed by Paul King, the animating force behind the truly marvelous Paddington films—is a prequel to the story first cooked up by Roald Dahl with his 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book has already spawned its share of movie adaptations: There’s Tim Burton’s loopy but fascinating 2005 version, starring Johnny Depp, and Mel Stuart’s 1971 picture with Gene Wilder, whose mildly malevolent performance, for me, represents the gold standard—or at least the gold-foil-wrapped standard—of Wonka representation. It’s unfair to compare King’s Wonka to either; it builds on those movies in a respectful way, though the universe King builds is really the movie’s own, for better or perhaps worse.

Timothée Chalamet is the youthful Willy Wonka who, as the film opens, is just completing a seven-year sea journey from one undisclosed place and landing in another, a city that’s a dream mashup of London, Paris, and Austria—but more importantly, it’s a city with a lavish gallery where one can purchase the finest chocolate in the world. The young Wonka dreams of opening his own shop; he has arrived with a small cabinet of rare flavoring and bottled potions, the raw goods that allow him to make his exquisitely odd sweets—eclairs that can rejuvenate hair follicles, polychrome gobstoppers that allow those who consume them to hover delightfully, or not so delightfully, in the air, and so forth. We learn that Wonka’s dear departed mother (and played in flashback scenes, with a bit too much twinkling, by the generally wonderful Sally Hawkins), has instilled in him all her own chocolate-making secrets, as well as urging him to hang onto his dreams. You know, standard dead-mom stuff.

Read More: Timothée Chalamet Wants You to Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

But Wonka’s path to success is studded with petrified sugar lumps: A trio of evil chocolatiers (played by Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas, and Mathew Baynton) will do whatever it takes to prevent him from doing business. An even bigger problem is that he has been imprisoned by the evil innkeeper and laundress Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) and her unkempt henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis); they’ve scammed him into working in their laundry facility until he can pay off his artificially jacked-up hotel bill. Naturally, Wonka makes friends easily, and among the despairingly madcap types stuck in Mrs. Scrubitt’s laundry dungeon is a smart orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane, who gives the calmest, most graceful performance in the movie). Noodle helps Wonka learn how to read—because though he can sing, dance, and make outlandish chocolates, that is the one essential skill he doesn’t possess.

Read More: How Wonka Handles the Controversial History of Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas

So far we’ve got the joys of reading, the value of hanging onto your dreams, and the evil nature of corporate monopolies: that’s plenty of feel-goodism for one musical, providing a jungle-gym of armature on which to hang musical numbers. Wonka enfolds some favorites from the 1971 version (including Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination”), though the bulk of the songs are new: they’re written by Neil Hannon, and most of them are serviceable enough. The opening number, “A Hatful of Dreams,” has a classic, natty 1960s musical vibe—think Oliver!—and as sung by Chalamet, it’s a reasonably cheerful welcome. Chalamet’s voice has a pleasant, translucent quality, and he’s an even better dancer, both debonair and prankish.

Wonka is carefully calibrated to bring joy. But do we want our joy to be something capable of being manipulated with buttons and knobs, with grand but somehow flat-looking sets, with musical numbers that stress the importance of dreams and wonder and friendship yet fail to achieve little beyond reminding us how important those things are? We already know they’re important; we want to feel their pulse. And Wonka gives us everything but that quiet, thrumming sensation.


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