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MANILA, Philippines – When I heard that there was going to be a new Willy Wonka movie, and that it was going to be a prequel, I reacted with what I felt was an appropriate amount of cynicism. I thought, “Why Do we really need this? What does this add to anything? Is it just trying to milk yet another franchise by adding an unnecessary prequel? Why can’t we have new ideas? And please don’t tell me they are going to build a Dalh-verse or something.”
Which is to say, I really was in no place to give Wonka a chance. I was ready not only to write it off, but to cut it up as yet another example of what’s wrong with Hollywood: trying to resuscitate IP and live off sequels and prequels rather than investing in original stories. Going for cash grabs based on nostalgia. All this other stuff.
Which is why, maybe ten minutes into Wonka, I was forced to reassess all my assumptions and flip over. There’s a magic and whimsy to it that hit me, and from that point on, I was in for the ride. For however there might be flaws and some slack and some things missing to it, on the whole, it builds out not just a world, but an experience for the viewer.
We start the movie with a young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) stepping off a boat after years of travels. Now he is ready to embark on the journey to become the chocolatier that we will eventually meet in the stories we are familiar with. But for the purposes of this movie, Willy Wonka isn’t the eccentric old man inviting children to his factory. Instead, he is the young upstart trying to make a name for himself in the chocolate game.
In quite quick succession, our protagonist meets and is confronted with the two pillars of conflict in the film. Sure, Willy Wonka is already imbued with magical chocolate powers – no angst-ing about becoming the greatest or whatever, he just is. He’s still a no-one who needs to struggle. The two drivers of this conflict are, quite admittedly, pretty dark if you spend enough time thinking about them. And even the whimsical musical numbers around them do little to soften them.
First off, the big bad of the film comes in the form of a chocolate cartel which has infiltrated and taken control of the levers of power, including the police and the church (yeah it’s absurd, but you gotta roll with it). They’ve gotten such a powerful hold on society that no one else can start a chocolate business.
The second bad comes in the form of Olivia Colman’s Mrs. Scrubbit, who scams Wonka into what is, but is never called in the film, indentured servitude. Instead, there’s a very catchy song number about the kind of labor that Wonka and his compatriots are forced into. The rest of the story is simple enough: Wonka struggles, and with the help of his compatriots, led by Calah Lane’s Noodle, and the occasional appearance of Hugh Grant in Oompa Loompa form, they all overcome the challenges.
Where this works as a prequel is in taking this whole thing seriously. And I don’t mean that the film itself is serious. But the filmmakers have decided that this is a story worth telling, and they’ve applied appropriate craft in making this a meaningful and endearing film. It’s as if they knew all the cynical responses (like mine) and made sure that the movie would be bulletproof to it.
Chalamet’s Wonka is likable (maybe a little too much), and it helps that Chalamet himself is such a powerful screen presence that you’re ready to believe all of the things he does as the character. We get a credible back story and motivation for the character to be the way he is. And in addition, the supporting cast has small stories that are just the right level of endearing, bordering on but staying short of getting too cheesy or sweet.
Two things left me really impressed. First is the visual approach. With all the possibilities of CG in play, the film pulls back and leans into a tasteful deployment of it. We are treated to a lot of really beautiful production design, the kind of stuff that makes us believe in a world that’s powered by a love and lust for chocolate. If I were a kid, I would believe that the places in the movie could exist, and that maybe I could even visit them. (Cynical thought is: hey this stuff has to be some kind of ride or attraction eventually right?)
The overall look of the film conveys to us that we are in a world where chocolate is taken seriously, that the tragic stories still hold true, but that we are in a fantasy land where magical chocolate and happy endings can exist.
The other major element that makes it all work is the music. The music is composed by Joby Talbot and Neil Hannon, who britpop fans might recognize from The Divine Comedy. While the songs are composed for a musical, with a lot of the familiar elements you would expect from a musical movie, you also get these big, wonderful melodies that you might expect from Hannon. There are turns of phrase and catchy bits in every song.
I think if you’re looking to have fun, and if you like musicals, you will want to check out Wonka. It’s not “essential” in the way that, well, prequels and sequels often aren’t essential. But it is a prequel that’s put the work in to be entertaining and meaningful. More importantly, it’s decided that it needs to be a strong film on its own, regardless of whether you are thinking of or connecting it with any other movie. On its own merits, Wonka is a movie worth watching. – Rappler.com