When it was first announced Warner Bros. was in the early stages of developing a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory prequel about Willy Wonka’s rise to fame and fortune, it was clear that the producers didn’t have a handle on what, exactly, this iteration of the character should feel like. Actors suggested for the role varied in age and screen persona, with upstarts like Ezra Miller being considered alongside older vets like Ryan Gosling and Donald Glover––and although Timothée Chalamet makes much more sense age-wise for a prequel set 25 years before the events of Roald Dahl’s novel, Wonka never manages to overcome just how miscast its lead feels.
Chalamet’s recently spoken about heeding Tom Cruise’s advice and taking dance lessons––so few young stars have those basic Old Hollywood talents––and this has the air of a project he boarded purely to put such skills to use. Unfortunately, if his aim was to start recalibrating his screen persona to fit in that classic matinee idol mold, Wonka is a near-fatal miscalculation. His overly twee take on the chocolate tycoon will likely make audiences look back fondly on Johnny Depp’s poor Michael Jackson imitation in Tim Burton’s remake from 2005.
Wonka is directed by Paul King, of the much-superior Paddington series. He re-teams with regular co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby to tell a story that… well, basically condenses the plot of both Paddington films together, feeling belabored in its plot construction where those felt effortless. Not unlike the titular Peruvian bear, Willy aims to start a new life in London, but almost immediately falls victim to a conspiracy to paint him as a villain and is effectively imprisoned in a hotel-turned-work-camp from which he must devise a cunning escape––sadly, with an annoying child sidekick (Noodle, played by newcomer Cala Lane) in place of Brendan Gleeson’s Knuckles McGinty.
Even specific sequences seem crafted to directly recall those in the Paddington series, such as the way King lingers on a traumatic near-death experience for its protagonist ever so slightly longer than a movie aimed at children should, or how he once again closes with a Hugh Grant musical number over the credits. Paddington 2 boasts the most perfectly-constructed screenplay of any family film from the past decade; Wonka only reaffirms that. The ways King and Farnaby lazily copy its plot beats prove remarkably unsatisfying, struggling to recapture the same lightning in a bottle that made a surprise critical success.
Chalamet has proven a capable comic performer before, but feels out-of-his-depth when tasked with being both charming and mischievous. As his collaborations with Greta Gerwig have proven, he’s utilized best playing comedic characters with little self-awareness, not those who resemble conventional screen heroes (even if this is the most eccentric iteration of that). Admittedly, the screenplay itself has little awareness about what it wants Wonka to be, transforming the character completely within split seconds so it can half-heartedly sell emotional beats. At one point it’s remarked that he’s illiterate––until, in a third-act reveal, he can suddenly read a piece of paper that gives crucial information about another character. It’s the cheapest form of development, directly referencing the trait clearly forgotten within its dialogue to make you think progress has happened offscreen; really it’s just being self-aware of its half-assed form of pushing the story forward. It may broadly follow similar plot beats to Paddington 2, but there’s no care, let alone grace, to how it approaches them.
Dahl’s novels have endured precisely because of their darkness, each story constructed to remind young readers that most adult authority figures aren’t to be trusted. As Willy’s attempts to open his own chocolate shop are thwarted by the “Chocolate Mafia,” a shadowy group of confectionary shop owners led by Wonka‘s MVP, Patterson Joseph’s Arthur Slugworth, so too are his attempts to start a new life in the city, sentenced to working underneath a hotel for nearly 30 years by its owners (Olivia Colman and Tom Davis) who aim to trap gullible tourists via the endless small-print in each room contract. These are the moments that feel most indebted to the blackly comic spirit of their pseudo-source material; as elsewhere, King’s instincts lead him towards a saccharine sensibility that makes an awkward fit for this character.
Willy’s desire to make a name for himself is indebted entirely to his mother (Sally Hawkins sporting an inexplicable Irish accent), with the tale slowly transforming into an earnest ode to chosen family. Much like last year’s musical adaptation of Matilda, it acknowledges the darkness inherent to any Dahl story but fails to understand that truly embracing it, making each emotional moment all the more rewarding because of how hard-won it is, is vital; audiences never get a chance to sit in those moments for long, the film rushing to tug at heartstrings with every available opportunity, seldom earning it.
However, watching Wonka with the sound off could easily convince this was one of the year’s best. Aided by Park Chan-wook’s regular cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, King once again brings to life a romanticized vision of Britain, boasting gorgeous, elaborate production and costume design intended to honor his biggest influence: Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He’s called Wonka the Delicatessen to Paddington’s Amelie, and it’s easy to see that film’s DNA throughout. It’s a shame such a fantastical rendering of merry old England frequently crosses paths with uncanny-valley CGI––you will never get used to seeing Oompa-Loompa Hugh Grant––when its grandest delights, from the inside of Wonka’s store to the hotel workhouse, all have a winning tactility in their designs.
The end result is one of the best-looking blockbusters of recent memory, easy to hold attention while straining and failing to emotionally engage. It’s a forced attempt to recreate Paddington‘s magic without properly grappling with what makes the best Roald Dahl stories work––a film too immaculately crafted to be considered a true disaster, even if the end result is disappointment all the same.
Wonka opens on December 15.