When it was announced that the creative team behind the Paddington films were making a musical about Willy Wonka’s early life, some cynics speculated that we were just going to get Paddington again, but with more songs, less marmalade, and a different shape of hat. To which the rest of us could only respond: ooh, yes, that sounds lovely, thanks.
Wonka – which is one of the best times you’ll have in the cinema this year – isn’t exactly that film. But it’s far closer to the recent big-screen adventures of Michael Bond’s beloved bear than it is to Dahl’s original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novel – and, frankly, is all the better for it. This is no conventional prequel, full of bucketloads (or even Bucket-loads) of laborious foreshadowing: there’s no breezy cameo from a hot Grandpa Joe, a la Jude Law’s young Dumbledore, in tasteful midcentury knits.
Nor is it an effortful Dahl cover version. The plot has villainy to spare, but no sadistic streak – even Olivia Colman and Tom Davis’s venomous hoteliers are a good deal less toxic than, say, the Twits – while all confectionery-based mishaps aren’t matters of cosmic punishment but industrial sabotage.
Instead, director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby have concocted a wholly self-contained caper about a plucky young chocolatier taking on a cartel of older, meaner rivals – then dusted it with enough details drawn from both Dahl’s novel and the 1971 film to make the branding add up.
Devout Wonkarians are rewarded with nods and winks: a turn of phrase here, a visual echo there, or a tinkling of Pure Imagination in Joby Talbot’s magical score. (The suite of new songs, by Talbot and his old Divine Comedy collaborator Neil Hannon, are witty and wondrous: a set of instant, hear-once, hum-forever classics.) Otherwise, though, the film largely just gets on with its own Great Chocolate Caper thing.
As the youthful Willy Wonka, Timothée Chalamet does throw in the odd Gene Wilder-ish line reading or gesture, but the script doesn’t furnish him with many opportunities for those. Rather, he’s mainly required to be bright and charming, sell some amusingly silly lines, and hold a tune – which, with perhaps a little help from the sound engineers, he does.
And yes, perhaps sometimes, if you squint a bit, you could almost be watching a shaved Paddington in a natty purple suit. But his new film’s comic tone is riper and madder: King’s first directorial work was on the BBC sitcom The Mighty Boosh, and Wonka plonks itself squarely in that very British tradition of surreal escapades with a satirical kick. Long before the Boosh came Not the Nine O’Clock News (whose famous gorilla joke makes a cameo of sorts), then the Pythons – and before them all The Goon Show, of which Wonka often feels like a feature-length episode.
Paterson Joseph’s Arthur Slugworth, head of the town’s wicked chocolate cartel, is a deliciously smarmy Grytpype-Thynne type, while Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton’s sidekicks are a pair of perfect Moriartys. Meanwhile, supporting characters constantly chime in with Goonish non-sequiturs, such as Jim Carter’s dark mutterings of an abbey of chocoholic monks, or Natasha Rothwell’s plumber warily asking Willy, after his clandestine midnight jaunt to the zoo: “Where have you been, and why do you smell of giraffe?”
Even Hugh Grant’s Oompa-Loompa, Lofty – who, with his green hair and orange complexion, must be the film’s cleanest lift from Wonka lore – has an uproarious, martini-dry “must-we?” demeanour that screams Peter Sellers.
Perhaps the film’s only real sop to nostalgia (aside from the encore performance of a certain song) is its replication of the 1971 film’s weirdly ambiguous setting, which has been fleshed out into a gorgeous storybook hybrid of Bavaria, Paris and an English university town. Of all the things to bring back, it’s an odd one, but something about it just tastes right.
Like any good chocolatier, King has obsessively focused on texture and flavour. And it’s those qualities – tuned to mass-market tastes, yet held in connoisseurish balance – that give his film its irresistible velvety sweetness.
PG cert, 116 mins. In cinemas from Friday December 8