At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a formidable novel for children (and adults with the soul of a child), published in 1964 by Roald Dahl, the British writer explains how Willy Wonka, the best chocolate maker in the world, had to counter the trickery of his competitors by firing his workers and closing his business for a while because most of them were spies at the service of the other factories, embedded there to steal his secret recipes. That economic (and even social) detail, included in a children’s novel full of magic, said much more than what was apparently narrated: Dahl treated his young readers as thinking beings.
The fact that Dahl, author of such emblematic titles as The Witches, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, continues to be a reference point for contemporary family films is a cause for celebration. And the fact that Wonka, a prequel to the novel and its two film adaptations — Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, 2005) — recaptures those three evil corporate opponents, Slugworth, Fickelgruber, and Prodnose, not as the tertiary characters of the previous films but into true villainous antagonists and to cite them as “a cartel that aims to eliminate any kind of competition,” also says a lot about Paul King, the screenwriter and director who has invented a past for Wonka, narrating his beginnings from absolute poverty to triumph with his rich trinkets. And he has done so as a musical, a durable genre but one of the most risky for the box office.
Without reaching excellence, everything is remarkably well-composed in King’s film, the hand behind the two wonderful Paddington movies. The songs and music by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and composer Joby Talbot are up to the mark, although they have not managed to prevent the catchiest song from being the mythical Oompa-Loompa, which featured in Stuart’s version, although it has been given new arrangements. Timothée Chalamet, without possessing a great voice, passes with flying colors vocally thanks, above all, to that charisma that some people dislike but many others fall in love with. And the supporting cast is full of great ideas and presence. Olivia Colman and Tom Davis shine as a pair of rascals who run an inn-laundromat turned into a prison for the unwary, which is not difficult to guess is inspired by the extravagant Thénardier from the musical Les Miserables and the criminal barbers of Sweeney Todd. Jim Carter, the sober butler from Downton Abbey, Rowan Atkinson — again playing a priest with shades of Mr. Bean — and Matt Lucas of Little Britain, are present to flex their greatest virtues by doing pretty much the same thing, but in other settings. And a digitally diminutive Hugh Grant, with an orange face and green hair, manages to steal all Chalamet’s scenes in his role as Lofty, the original Oompa-Loompa.
Perhaps the dance numbers lack a classical director experienced in the genre — or a less hurried editor than Mark Everson — and there the sequence of the number in the square, with dozens of couples dancing together, is a paradigm for not holding the most expressive shots for many more frames. But Wonka more than fulfills both Roald Dahl’s universe, in its sweetest and most hopeful version, and the classic atmosphere of a musical starring street kids downtrodden by power, social circumstances, and cruelty, of which Oliver, Annie and The Little Rascals may be the best examples, and in which King’s film understands how to look at itself with reverential respect.
Director: Paul King.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Paterson Joseph.
Genre: Musical. UK, 2023.
Runtime: 116 minutes.
Release date: December 6.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition