WONKA. In Pursuit of Imagination [REVIEW]

New actor, new story, the same delicious entertainment.

Lukasz Budnik

11 December 2023

Everything good in this world begins with a dream. Willy Wonka has a whole bunch of them and won’t hesitate to move heaven and earth to make them come true. The fragile, unassuming inventor, who keeps his head in the clouds, in a funny cylinder and burgundy coat, faces a reality where people have forgotten what laughter, fun, and mutual kindness are. The globetrotting confectioner, who finally believes he has found his place on Earth, desires not only to gift everyone with his otherworldly delicious chocolate but, above all, to encourage them to follow their imagination, spread love, and add a pinch of optimism, a handful of smiles, and a vial of liquid happiness to their daily menu. Wonka is back—in an entirely new edition, with a completely new cast, and with a slightly different message than Tim Burton’s and Mel Stuart’s versions. What surprises will the owner of the world’s most famous chocolate factory bring us this time?

A fairy-tale setting and a musical atmosphere come together in the first minutes of the production, whisking us away to sing and dance together, inviting us to an extraordinary land of imagination and magic. The king and conductor of this realm are none other than a professional dreamer: Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet). With a charismatic smile and carrying only a small suitcase, he lands in a town where he intends to develop his confectionery talent. Motivated by memories of his beloved late mother, he decides to open the biggest chocolate shop the world has ever seen in her honor. However, not everything is as sweet and easy as it seems in his lighthearted plans. Standing in his way is a chocolate cartel, consisting of three local entrepreneurs who engage in significant financial frauds and control the entire local police force—all to prevent the young aspiring confectioner Wonka from stealing their customers. Thus begins an uneven battle for status and position in the industry, where Wonka’s authenticity, courage, and determination in implementing his plans are the only things that can save him. Meanwhile, the young inventor stops at a rather suspicious boarding house run by the repulsive Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman) and her business partner Bielarz (Tom Davis). There, Willy meets a young Nitka (Calah Lane), who, like him, falls victim to the owners’ fraud and is forced to perform indefinitely unpaid work for them. Together, they join forces to escape their predicament, thwart the local schemers, and make Wonka’s recipes the most sought-after commodity in town.

For a long time, there has been tumultuous debate about whether a new Wonka is needed at all, whether it will bring anything new to the story inspired by Roald Dahl’s novel, and whether it can surpass the phenomenon of Johnny Depp and Gene Wilder. Well, Timothée Chalamet doesn’t seem to be trying to compete with the legends that preceded his performance but is creating an entirely new, avant-garde character, with no resemblance to the aforementioned actors. His Willy is a mad, positively eccentric young man who is still searching for his place on Earth, feeding on hope and giving encouragement to both his screen friends and those who observe him on the screen. Paul King’s film is a different caliber than Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which portrayed the famous magician-confectioner as eccentric and unpredictable. Wonka is a film saturated with positive energy, lively, and carrying numerous universal morals that will touch the hearts of both the youngest and well-acquainted audiences with the previous versions of this story.

It is difficult to find information in the film’s promotional action that it is, truth be told, a full-fledged musical—for the first time, we have the opportunity to evaluate Chalamet’s vocal skills, and it must be admitted that his singing Willy captivates and floods the screen with sweetness. The same cannot be said, however, for most of the supporting characters—the role of the dark Wonka from previous parts is taken over by, among others, the vengeful Mrs. Scrubbit or the members of the chocolate cartel, who do everything to constantly trip up the newcomer. At this point, one could criticize the film for repetitiveness and schematism compared to other works aimed at a similar audience; however, the magic of the new Wonka lies precisely in the innocence and lightness of the film, a perfectly fitting patch for small and big worries. The soundtrack by Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot doesn’t have to be groundbreaking and extremely original to permanently settle in your head after leaving the cinema. We all expected the return of the famous Pure Imagination, from which Gene Wilder created a true musical hit—listening to Chalamet’s version, you may be moved similarly, if not more so, than before. The musical layer perfectly complements the non-trivial set design or whimsical costumes, which give the characters color and charisma, creating a Wonka musical worthy of the classics of the genre, ideal for you and your children, symbolically extending the life story of the chocolate inventor.

Will Wonka reveal a plethora of previously unknown facts about Willy’s life and develop motifs omitted or only briefly mentioned in the two previous films? Definitely not, and this has its advantages. It is a new chapter in the confectioner’s history, who this time, instead of a sinister smile, carries humor, is sometimes clumsy, still childishly naive, and far from walking firmly on the ground. That is precisely why his soul perfectly harmonizes with the musical requirements, and Chalamet (not without reason referred to as the new Hollywood James Dean) was practically made to embody this character. Wonka does not disappoint; it fulfills the role of a comforting holiday film, simultaneously unrelated to the holidays, in which warmth and magic fight against greed and deceit, and good deeds are rewarded—inevitably—with the fulfillment of the heroes’ greatest dreams. Looking back and considering the phenomenon that still surrounds Burton’s and Stuart’s works, Wonka is not a film that could compete with them in originality and breakthrough. It is rather a pleasant, uncomplicated addition to your favorite stories, which, nonetheless, will envelop you like a warm blanket on a cold afternoon and sweeten the gloomy winter scenery with a bit of magic, a substantial dose of humor, and several universal lessons that Willy takes from his new adventures.

To thoroughly enjoy the new Wonka, you don’t have to be familiar with the previous films at all—the work of Paul King stands on its own. It is a film that you feel, one that makes your legs dance on their own, and the heart warms with the sweetness sometimes perhaps too carefree, but comforting and fully entertaining. Does such an extensive marketing really have something to promote? Definitely yes, Wonka will undoubtedly find its place in the ranking of productions that must be seen during the holiday season (and beyond). Everything you expect from family cinema can be found right here.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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