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Review: Wonka (2023)

Wonka (2023)

Directed by: Paul King

Premise: A prequel to 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Chocolatier Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arrives at a European city to make his fortune. He’s shut out of the candy industry by three companies that collaborate to crush competitors.

What Works: Wonka is a prequel to a beloved movie but it possesses an identity of its own. This is a going-into-business story and Wonka is surprisingly subversive. This film—which was made by Warner Bros. Discovery, one of the handful of corporations that control the bulk of our media—is about an independent upstart who enters the candy business only to find that he’s squeezed out by the anticompetitive practices of an oligopoly. The owners of the established chocolate companies have corrupted the law and make it impossible for anyone to compete. The fact that this story exists in a studio tent pole film is remarkable. Fans of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory will find that the movie contains a few nods to its predecessor but the filmmakers are restrained. The references are mostly throwaway lines or musical signatures. Wonka is a musical and it has a slate of new songs, many of them quite good such as “A Hatful of Dreams” and “You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This.” The songs are light and fun and suit the movie’s tone. This is a nice, family friendly fantasy that mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do.

What Doesn’t: The Willy Wonka character originated in Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which was adapted in 1971 and again in 2005. Wonka is clearly intended to precede the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder. Chalamet is dressed in Wilder’s costume, the Oompa Loompa design is the same, and the new film includes some of the songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Unfortunately, Wonka does not work as a prequel to the 1971 film. That picture referenced a backstory, that Wonka had been betrayed by a confidant and isolated himself in his factory. None of that is dramatized here and neither the town nor the character match the 1971 film. Timothée Chalamet does not have the same qualities as Gene Wilder; there was a wickedness to Wilder’s character that is completely absent here. Willy Wonka isn’t much of a character. He doesn’t grow over the course of the story and Chalamet is not much of a singer. The technical qualities of Wonka are uneven. Some of the visual effects are dodgy especially the digitally created Oompa Loompa played by Hugh Grant. The syncing of the audio is frequently mediocre. It’s obvious that the actors are singing along to dubbed performances.

Bottom Line: Taking Wonka on its own terms, the movie is a relative success. It is fun and it will entertain families. Wonka has nothing on the 1971 film and the technical qualities are inconsistent.

Episode: #977 (December 17, 2023)