Wonka Timothée Chalamet review

Wonka is sweet but full of empty calories

2.5 out of 5 stars

Earlier this year, four short films based on the works of Roald Dahl, directed by Wes Anderson, were released on Netflix. Even as an occasional Anderson skeptic, it was difficult not to be charmed by them. They were bright and reflective; they found a balance between Dahl’s crueller impulses and Anderson’s melancholic ones. Despite being adaptations of Dahl’s lesser-known works, they felt like a fresh take on familiar material, a labour of love from a director whose sensibilities are at least in part indebted to the British writer.

With the release of Wonka this December, we have a fifth Dahl adaptation in 2023. Directed by Paul King, whose success with the Paddington films has made him a darling of critics and audiences alike, Wonka has many of the whimsical charms of King’s previous works. Timothée Chalamet captures a certain menace underneath the warmth and vibrancy of his Wonka role — he’s intensely likeable. King’s skill at audiovisual gags that make it feel like the cameras were dancing, the editing rhythmic and in tune with the music and world, elevate Wonka above many other Hollywood films. 

Timothée Chalamet in Wonka
Timothée Chalamet in Wonka

Yet, it’s hard not to see that there’s a line between the films made by Anderson and this one made by King. While hardly the worst offender in a film industry that flattens original ideas by calling them IP (intellectual property), it nonetheless feels somewhat vapid, representing a cloying and depressing trend that views art only through commodification. In bringing the origin story of Willy Wonka to the screen, our imaginations aren’t being expanded or tested. We are being set up for something new to buy into. All the joy and friction of Dahl’s work is now serving the all-mighty dollar rather than imagination. 

Writing about this, it’s difficult for me to articulate why Anderson’s works are adaptations, and King’s work doesn’t hit right. Paddington was also an “IP” and was less offensive, perhaps because the stories of Paddington lack the same kind of contradictions and tension of Dahl’s work. It’s also worth noting that though enjoyable, I’m hardly the greatest champion of the Paddington films either, but they’re more clearly movies intended for a younger audience that doesn’t offend adult tastes. Wonka feels more grown and less animated as it struggles to integrate some of King’s cartoonish flourishes into a film that depends on a live-action lead — even one that is likeable.

Hugh Grant in Wonka
Hugh Grant in Wonka

But what lies below the surface? There was always something prickly about even Dahl’s most popular work. We know he was an anti-semite and a racist. Beyond that, he was unafraid of violence and cruelty. His characters were often paradoxical, Wonka chief among them. He was a granter of dreams and also a borderline violent sociopath who punished children with the same creative enthusiasm as John Doe in Se7en. The film, very obviously, fails to grapple with its author (though Wes Anderson doesn’t necessarily address the PrObLeMaTiC aspects of Dahl in his adaptations, they integrate the author as a character, which adds a compelling level of friction). Wonka has all the light, sweet substance of cotton candy and mere flavour whisps with very little texture or substance. There’s nothing complex to bite into; there’s nothing really to engage with.

This review likely comes across as unnecessarily harsh. Wonka is enjoyable; it’s pleasant. It has bursts of creativity and a lush appreciation of chocolate goodies. Most of the cast is wonderful (Hugh Grant, who is normally adorable even when miserable, seems weary with heavy, dark despair — a haunted performance), and the songs are bouncy and catchy. You certainly can do much worse as far as new releases go. But it’s hard to champion a film that doesn’t bring anything new to the table — that’s all surface and no passion. ■

Wonka (directed by Paul King)

Wonka is now playing in Montreal theatres.

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