New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Wonka’ is a sweet treat for your inner child

WSN spoke with actors Timothée Chalamet and Keegan-Michael Key about Paul King’s whimsical homage to the iconic story.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
“Wonka,” a new iteration of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” will be released in theaters on Dec. 15. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

I’ll be the first person to admit that I was deathly afraid of Willy Wonka as a child. Maybe it’s because I read Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” a few years before I should’ve, which convinced me I’d turn into a giant blueberry if I forgot to thank my bus drivers. Maybe Gene Wilder’s singing during the chocolate riverboat scene in the 1971 adaptation was to blame, or maybe it was Tim Burton’s 2005 iteration where I cringed watching Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Wonka visit his dentist father to get his cavities checked out. While the world of Wonka has always been nostalgic for me, it was never enough to assuage my fears.

The newest iteration of Dahl’s story, directed by Paul King, presents a more optimistic — and palatable — vision of Wonka. Set a long time before the golden tickets and his serial traumatizing of children, “Wonka” cured my childhood fear of the kooky chocolatier.

In this version of the story, Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) is young and jovial, setting up shop in London after traveling the world to source ingredients for his crazy confections. With a few pounds to his name and a song in his heart, Wonka hopes to honor his late mother (Sally Hawkins) with his passion for whipping up sweet treats, as well as establish himself as an esteemed chocolatier in the Galeries Gourmet — the world’s epicenter of chocolate sales. 

Given the iconography of Wonka, it’s hard not to compare the character to its past iterations, especially if you’ve grown up with the story. Chalamet told WSN about his own nostalgia with Wonka’s legacy — he, too, grew up watching the films with his mother and grandmother. 

“It felt… heartwarming in the moment to be revisiting such a cherished material, but also a certain pressure not to, you know, fuck it up,” Chalamet said. 

Wonka’s business endeavors are nothing short of whimsical, which is to be expected from King, the man behind “Paddington.” King’s Wonka is larger-than-life, pulling carrots and teacups out of his hat like a nutty Mary Poppins. He wows locals with his innovations through song and dance, assuring they’ve “never had chocolate like this” as he showers them with goodies. Each treat is tailored to his consumers, including candies that can grow hair or remedy heartbreak — Wonka’s in the people business just as much as he’s in the candy business. 

Upon his arrival, however, Wonka’s unorthodox goodies and eccentric sales strategies make him enemies. He’s conned into debt and signed away into a labor trafficking ring by bed-and-breakfast owner Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), and his mission to democratize chocolate consumption makes him unpopular with a cartel of profit-hungry chocolate barons — Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Mathew Baynton) and Prodnose (Matt Lucas). 

With his business partner, kid-orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Wonka has to find a way to pay off Mrs. Scrubbit’s exorbitant living rates and circumvent the corrupt chocolatiers and their sweet-toothed goons. It doesn’t help that his chocolate is regularly swiped by an angry Oompa Loompa (Hugh Grant), eager for revenge after Wonka snagged cacao beans from Loompaland to further his chocolate-making dreams.

There’s an undeniable sense of legacy honored in Chalamet’s portrayal of Wonka, retaining the same eccentricities and mystery as his older counterparts. He also dons the iconic plum jacket and is marked by the same self-replenishing energy that characterized the previous iterations. 

At the same time, Chalamet brings a heartwarming, less sinister portrayal of the chocolatier. He is filled with hope — not just for his business, but for the surrounding world. He’s unrelentingly spirited, a man who’s yet to be crushed by grim reality and instead faces each conflict with resilience and ingenuity. No matter the complication, whether it’s sneaking out through laundry chutes and storm drains to illegally sell his sweets or the town turning on him after his chocolate is tampered with, Wonka just creates a new plan with his boundless imagination.

“He always puts himself right back together,” Chalamet said. 

“Wonka” is unapologetically grandiose, chock-full of vibrant visuals and songs. While the film includes many callbacks to the older film adaptations, including a chocolate river and Grant singing the Oompa Loompas’ iconic tune, King’s direction breathes fresh air into Dahl’s story. 

Keegan-Michael Key’s character, the Chief of Police, is a zany chocolate addict susceptible to the cartel’s bribes, ballooning in size with each appearance due to his overconsumption. Key told WSN that King “whipped up cinematic chocolates of his own” throughout the production process with details like these, leaning into the inexplicable eccentricities that surround Wonka, such as a giant giraffe named Abigail, a chorus of chocoholic monks and a portable Oompa Loompa-sized bachelor pad — complete with its own cocktail bar. 

Along with the tantalizing visuals, the soundtrack — written by Neil Hannon and composed by Joby Talbot — reinvigorates old motifs from the 1971 film. It contains new playful and catchy tunes, including “A World of Your Own,” which Wonka sings as he unveils his magical candy shop — fitted with cotton candy clouds and its own edible ecosystem — to the public.

Key told WSN he hopes that “Wonka” will earn its place in the legacy of the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” story, and become its own symbol of childhood nostalgia over time. 

“My hope, and my expectation, is that [‘Wonka’] becomes a companion piece for the Gene Wilder film,” Key said. “That during the holiday season, or any season for that matter, people [will] watch these two movies… And then, you know, there’s a big gap in between, so maybe we have to make another movie.”

If King’s “Wonka” were to have a sequel, my hope is that it will continue to heal children everywhere. It’s not an easy task to save someone from developing a fear of drowning in a chocolate river or getting pecked away at by a scurry of squirrels.

“Wonka” is now showing in theaters everywhere.

Contact Dani Biondi at [email protected].

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    AnikaDec 15, 2023 at 10:09 am

    This article is a sweet treat for my eyes