Review: Paul King’s ‘Wonka’ Musical is a Truly Delightful Origin Story

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    Review: Paul King’s ‘Wonka’ Musical is a Truly Delightful Origin Story

    by Manuel São Bento
    December 14, 2023

    Wonka Review

    As someone who grew up with Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the announcement of a new film exploring the origin story of the enigmatic Willy Wonka piqued my interest. Despite it not being personal favorite or a movie I have tremendous nostalgia for, I still vividly remember the story and its moral lessons. I approached Wonka with a blend of anticipation and skepticism, with clear memories of Gene Wilder’s iconic portrayal and Johnny Depp’s memorable rendition. Paul King (best known for both Paddington & Paddington 2) being at the helm definitely contributed to higher expectations, and the final result left me positively surprised, as the film is a charming, entertaining experience that successfully captures the essence of the timeless novel while managing to stand on its own.

    In crafting a screenplay that focuses on the early years of its candy-making protagonist, writers Paul King & Simon Farnaby (of Paddington 2 and The Phantom of the Open) conscientiously strive to preserve the core moral lessons that are inherent in Dahl’s many stories. These serve as a guiding thread throughout Wonka, weaving a heartwarming tapestry around the central theme that dreams aren’t only worth pursuing, they find true value in sharing them with the people we love. Though familiar, it’s an apt message for a family Christmas flick, providing a relatable, resonant foundation for the story. Still, while it’s a refreshing take on the character, delving into his intriguing past, the movie unfolds in a fairly predictable manner, relying on established formulas that, while well-executed, miss an opportunity for more imaginative storytelling.

    Paul King’s Wonka movie’s commitment to upholding Dahl’s moral ethos is evident in its portrayal of the protagonist’s journey. The narrative plays out as a testament to the belief that individual aspirations, no matter how fantastical or whimsical, gain significance when intertwined with the lives of others. The heart of the story lies in the realization that personal fulfillment reaches its height not in solitary achievement but in collective joy and shared experiences with those who matter, whoever they may be.

    One of this movie’s unmistakable strengths lies in its exceptional ensemble cast. Prior to release, there was much debate surrounding the unconventional casting choices, but the end result speaks for itself. British actor Hugh Grant’s portrayal of the orange Oompa-Loompa is a comedic triumph, providing moments of genuine hilarity that deeply elevate the movie’s overall charm. Academy Award-winner Olivia Colman, as a shifty guest house owner, adds her own brand of amusement to the narrative. Calah Lane, only 14 years old, offers a breakthrough performance as Noodle, an orphan girl who is the heart and soul of Wonka.

    Wonka Review

    The movie’s centerpiece, Timothée Chalamet as a younger Willy Wonka, takes some getting used to, but the actor successfully carves out his own interpretation while retaining the odd, compassionate aura of the character previously represented by the iconic performances from Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. Chalamet is really a charisma bomb, regardless of the film he’s attached to. The entire cast in addition to Chalamet commits 200% to their purposefully over-the-top, campy roles, enhancing the movie’s delightful, immersive atmosphere overall, ultimately making it a truly joyful, humorous experience.

    On the technical front, the costume and production design in Wonka are nothing short of outstanding. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, with a riot of colors creating a lively, enchanting world that befits this story’s magical universe. Still, DP Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography here, while competent, feels a tad less inspired than other technical counterparts. There’s a strange lack of vividness to complement the fantastical elements, creating a slight discord that, while not a deal-breaker, hampers the film’s visual cohesion.

    Musically, Wonka is mostly efficient. Composer Joby Talbot’s score is incredibly sweet, referencing many of the well-known melodies from the original classic. When it comes to songwriter Neil Hannon’s original songs written for this movie, some are undeniably memorable – I’m going to be humming to the “Oompa Loompa” beat until the end of the year – but others fail to be as captivating and rich as one would hope. All are entertaining to watch (and listen to), but only a few actually add new, relevant information about the story or characters, occasionally feeling reiterative in their messages and meaning within the Wonka story.

    Final Thoughts

    Wonka offers a fresh perspective on the iconic character while paying homage to Roald Dahl’s timeless tale of morality. Paul King succeeds in delivering a jolly, entertaining, visually dazzling take on the origins of Willy Wonka, featuring a fearlessly committed cast, tons of good humor, and colorful, immersive technical excellence. Despite the rather formulaic narrative lacking the same creativity of other filmmaking aspects, it remains a sweet, harmonious, satisfying viewing experience that should be enjoyed on the big screen.

    Manuel’s Rating: B+
    Follow Manuel on Twitter – @msbreviews / Or Letterboxd – @msbreviews

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