When I first heard about Wonka I thought, “Oh great, another unnecessary cash-grab in the form of a prequel”. Not being too excited about it given the fact that Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is a timeless classic, and the remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has both its moments and fans. Even with Timothee Chalamet in the lead role as Willy Wonka and Paddington director, Paul King, didn’t stir my initial reservations. But curiosity got the better of me. And I have to admit, this was the biggest surprise of 2023!
After traveling the world in search of the perfect ingredients for his chocolate, Willy Wonka (played by Timothee Chalamet) dreams of opening his own chocolate store in Galeries Gourmet. But at every turn he meets resistance in the form of the Chocolate Cartel, the 3 biggest chocolatiers in the city. With nothing but a hatful of dreams and a little help from his new friend Noodle (played by Calah Lane), Willy Wonka sets out to make his dream a reality, one chocolate treat at a time.
Given how many movies I have seen of Timothee Chalamet give incredible performances in serious dramas, with the likes of Dune, Little Women, and Call Me By Your Name. So seeing him as Willy Wonka was a weird change of pace, but a welcomed one. Chalamet managed to give an eccentric performance reminiscent of Gene Wilder’s manic energy in the original but also managed to add his own emotional nuances to make the character his own. The rest of the supporting cast managed to hold their own with Chalamet and also add to the film’s heart, in particular with Calah Lane as Noodle.
Akin to the original Willy Wonka, 2023’s Wonka manages to capture the essence of childhood imagination as we see our titular character daydream about his future success. Along with the production design committing to the dreamlike state Wonka is constantly in. Whether it’s with his shop when he first opens it or the factory he creates at the end (even if it is mostly CGI). They managed to create their atmospheres similar to their environments as well, with the hope and cheer related to their more colorful set pieces, despair and failure being used with their more rundown, depressing sets like Mrs. Scrubitt’s Laundromat.
What caught me completely off guard was the mixture of tones in the film and how well they molded together. One moment it is a stereotypical musical then the next it's something out of a mafia movie. Two styles I never thought would work but gel together well. It was a different direction from Paul King than I anticipated, but he manages to maintain his bright optimism from his Paddington movies, even when the film leans into its darker themes such as corporate greed and business monopolies. Yet, they still manage to have its core themes of dreams and friendship to ring true above the not so subtle messages the film conveys.
The songs and music itself is quite beautiful, capturing the feeling of hopefulness amidst its deary cityscape. Songs like the toe-tapping “Hatful of Dreams” gets the ball rolling strong, but more emotional songs such as “For A Moment” drive home the importance of the films themes; I am not forgetting Wonka’s lovely rendition of “Pure Imagination” as that one really gets the waterworks going. Don’t even get me started on the hilarious “Oompa Loompa” songs, which are just as weird and funny as the original 1971’s versions, with Hugh Grant being the cherry on top.
Wonka was one of those films I thought was gonna be bad but fun, and it turned into one of my biggest surprises for 2023. The amount of heart the film had with its hopeful themes and commentary on greedy businesses was balanced marvelously. It was easy to eat up, especially considering the different styles of genres they mixed together. Timothee Chalamet embodies Willy Wonka’s zany energy while adding layers to the beloved chocolatier previously undiscovered, the supporting cast holds their own well, in particular Calah Lane as Noodle. The songs are lovely and compliment the film splendidly, and you’ll find yourself either laughing or crying as you’re listening to them. Wonka managed to do what I believe the 2008 film failed at: recapturing the Pure Imagination of the original!