Arts and Entertainment

The Wondrously Weird-alicious World of Wonka

Despite initial doubts, Wonka manages to stand out in an era of the oversaturated market of remakes and reboots by sticking to the wonder and zaniness that made Roald Dahl's novels so popular.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Malka Lubelski

“Quiet up! And listen down—No, scratch that, reverse it.” As trailers started to roll out for Wonka (2023), this particular line of dialogue spread across TikTok as a meme. Users would mimic Timothée Chalamet’s Willy Wonka with exaggerated hand movements and expressions, mocking the actor’s take on the beloved character. The film follows the beloved chocolate magician Willy Wonka before his infamy as a factory-ridden hermit, battling members of a malicious chocolate monopoly to sell his treats in a whimsical, vaguely British city. Wonka isn’t the first time audiences have received a strange adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous deuteragonist—remember Johnny Depp’s disturbing rendition in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)? The tale of a zany man essentially penalizing small children for their sins always had malicious undertones. Wonka skirts its predecessor’s strange moral area of child endangerment and Oompa Loompa exploitation by being a prequel to Roald Dahl’s original novel. The film’s director, Paul King, is no stranger to adapting children’s books, having directed both Paddington films. With Wonka, King strikes gold once again, tugging at the audience’s heartstrings with his fantastical yet simplistic depiction of the classic character. 

Chalamet’s Wonka is introduced as naive and bushy-tailed—a contrast to the eccentric recluse audiences have become used to—as he hopes to make his way through the city by selling his chocolate. His gullibility lands him into a bad contract, forcing him to work for the wolfishly greedy innkeeper Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). Wonka’s character fits into the now-conventional model of a hero: he’s generous, ambitious, and an orphan. It’s what makes this adaptation so peculiar—it’s predictable and cliché, but the filmmakers understand that they aren’t reinventing the wheel, expertly infusing their tropes with so much of the film’s campiness that it becomes a strength, not a pitfall. They opt for sincere messaging that creates an emotional core to Wonka that most children’s films today lack. Having mostly played dramatic roles in films such as Elio in Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Paul Atreides in Dune (2021), Chamalet’s Wonka has the perfect level of boyishness and sincerity. However, Chamalet feels out of his element when portraying Wonka’s eccentricities. Though blown out of proportion online, the aforementioned line that went viral on TikTok is admittedly still awkward in the movie. The film’s “silliness” is better accomplished by the villains; they’re chocolate tycoons, and delightfully cartoonish in their evildoing, performing malice typically accompanied by a slow clap or a cavernous cackle. Their sole motivation is unexplained, all-consuming greed. This could have been one-dimensional, but the standout character-acting of Paterson Joseph (Slugworth), Mathew Baynton (Fickelgruber), and Matt Lucas (Prodnose) is reminiscent of the larger-than-life vileness portrayed by many of Roald Dahl’s classic villains, bringing the tycoons to life as if they had walked straight out of the actual novel.

Wonka is also a musical, and from the start, the film immediately endears the audience to Wonka with an “I Want” song typical for a musical. This may surprise viewers, as Wonka’s rollout completely glossed over its musical elements. The tunes are catchy, the vocal performances are strong, and the choreography, although a bit unmemorable, is serviceable. On a mission to extract the milk of a giraffe for a special chocolate recipe, Wonka and Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan also under Scrubbit’s contract, bond over the joy they’ve brought into each other’s lives. Wonka and Noodle’s developing relationship eventually leads to the film’s strongest number. In “For a Moment,” the two dance across the night sky, floating with hundreds of balloons as they leap from building to building. The lyrics are genuinely touching: Noodle reflects upon the wonder and hope that Wonka and his chocolate have brought her, singing, “For a moment / Life doesn’t seem quite so bad / For a moment / I kind of forgot to be sad.” The one barrier that keeps this song from being phenomenal is how synthetic and slightly over-processed Noodle’s singing is, taking the magic away from the scene. Sadly, Noodle’s voice isn’t the only time in which technical aspects of the film impeded its wondrous world. 

The CGI in the film is distractingly noticeable. What could have added to the magical realism of this film instead made it visually similar to the video game-like visuals of recent high-budget superhero films, stacked and rushed through the endless assembly line of labor 3D artists are swamped with. The factory from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s grand reveal was stunted by half-baked CGI, disappointingly ending the film on a sour note. 

Despite these setbacks, Wonka has already made half a billion at the box office and the reasons seem clear—this strange but beloved tale of Roald Dahl’s peculiar chocolatier is substantive enough to be more than just a prequel. Despite dropping into a few common pitfalls of modern adaptations, Wonka has the heart and strong messaging to set it apart from its contemporaries, and Timothee Chalamet’s Willy Wonka is a welcome addition to the pantheon of portrayals. And of course, what would Wonka be without some of the chocolatier’s most mouthwatering treats? Though his cherry-tinged Hover Chocs and Giraffe Cream Macarons may not exist in our world, we can all feast on the emotionally loveable banquet of King’s Wonka.