Director Paul King (Paddington) steps into a world of pure imagination with co-writer Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) as they bring Roald Dahl's most famous creation to life in the prequel film Wonka. Despite a slow beginning and an arguably darker tone, what they've created is, in a word, enchanting.
Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) has spent the last seven years preparing to enact his dream of owning his own chocolate shop. Arriving at the elite Galeries Gourmet, things don't go as smoothly or at all as he planned. He ends up broke on the first day and in indentured servitude to the con artists Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Colman) and Bleacher (Tom Davis). On top of this, his presence angers Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) - the "Chocolate Cartel." Working with chocolate addicts such as Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson) and the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key), they launch a scheme to rid themselves of the meddling youth once and for all. But Willy uses his magic to present a counter-offense of his own with newfound friends Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), and Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). But victory or failure may come down to the funny little man called an Oompa-Loompa (Hugh Grant), to whom Willy owes an unknown debt.
Stepping into a beloved world built not once but twice is a huge undertaking. King and Farnaby's collaboration rises to the occasion. Using elements from both prior films, they create a dark and magical setting. There's likely to be some criticism that they should have gone with the Wilder version or the Depp version, but not both. But by blending the worlds, they set a unique tone that works very well. Part of what makes the film work is the incredible casting, from the leads right down to the background players. Unlike some films that leave audiences wanting more development of the leads, King and Farnaby's leaves viewers wanting the backstory for almost everyone. The ones we do get are precise and entertaining. The musical numbers might be an interruption for some. Still, they do well to demonstrate that Willy often lives in his own little daydream, allowing himself to look at things from a peculiar angle that often leads to success. While Chalamet's singing voice could be better, Willy isn't a singer - he's a magician, especially with chocolate. The one flaw, which may be by design if a sequel is planned, is that audiences will be left wanting much more of Hugh Grant's Oompa-Loompa. If this is the case, they should stay for the credits.
The sets are as imaginative as Willy's dreams. Images of 19th-century London slums come to mind in the darker, less happy moments. But in the happy times, the designers go overboard with lights, colors, and fireworks. They bring to mind the whimsical creations of Dr. Seuss, particularly when Willy builds something. The songs might seem trite, but they are catchy and grasp the situations perfectly.
This might not be your parents' or your grandparents' Wonka, but that's okay. There's plenty from the original story and films to make everyone feel like they've won a Golden Ticket. They'll simply have to give the movie a chance, or as Willy would say, take a look, and you'll see into your imagination.