Did the world ask for a Willy Wonka origin story? Will the world actually pay to see a Willy Wonka origin story? Starting next weekend we’ll find out. Wonka stars floppy-haired Timothée Chalamet as the third onscreen incarnation of children’s literature’s most famous chocolatier. But perhaps everyone should be stoked: After all, Wonka is what lured Paddington 1 and 2 auteur Paul King away from the Paddington series. It must be good!
Perhaps you assume Wonka is all about the guy, as a young pup, building his magical chocolate factory? Not so, according to Uproxx’s Mike Ryan. Instead, this is what it’s about:
Willy has no money, but he’s presented with a contract too good to be true that lets him stay now and he can pay later. Of course, since Willy is illiterate he can’t read the contract that says he now owes 10,000 units of currency for the room and if he can’t pay it off he has to work for the inn for one unit of currency a day for 10,000 days – which comes to roughly 27 years. Willy now has to sell chocolate on the street to try and earn enough money to pay off his hotel bill. So anyway, that’s the plot of Wonka.
Or as Ryan succinctly puts it, “The plot is Willy can’t read.”
But is Wonka actually good? According to many critics, yes. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw went in a skeptic but emerged a believer:
On paper, it is the worst possible idea: a new musical-prequel origin myth for Willy Wonka, the reclusive top-hatted chocolatier from Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who decides in the onset of middle age to offer five Golden Tickets at random for kids to look round his secret confectionery paradise, staffed by a slave labour workforce of Oompa-Loompas. But in the hands of Brit-cinema’s new kings of comedy, writer Simon Farnaby and writer-director Paul King (who have already worked their magic on Paddington), this pre-Wonka is an absolute Christmas treat; it’s spectacular, imaginative, sweet-natured and funny.
Ditto Vox’s Esther Zuckerman:
But, like Paddington, Wonka defies expectations. The movie, which is out in theaters December 15, is absolutely charming and, dare I say, extremely Paddington-core. King has infused that same sort of warm, intelligent energy into his tale of an ambitious, kooky sweets purveyor who arrives in a vaguely European town with the hope of opening up a shop, only to have his dreams stifled by a pair of scheming launderers and an evil chocolate cartel. Timothée Chalamet may not be a furry little bear, but his Wonka is akin to Paddington. He’s an oddball optimist who inspires those around him — all except for the naysayers who see his good mood as an imposition.
The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin says that Paddigton heads shouldn’t expect simply more Paddington:
When it was announced that the creative team behind the Paddington films were making a musical about Willy Wonka’s early life, some cynics speculated that we were just going to get Paddington again, but with more songs, less marmalade, and a different shape of hat. To which the rest of us could only respond: ooh, yes, that sounds lovely, thanks.
Wonka – which is one of the best times you’ll have in the cinema this year – isn’t exactly that film. But it’s far closer to the recent big-screen adventures of Michael Bond’s beloved bear than it is to Dahl’s original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory novel – and, frankly, is all the better for it. This is no conventional prequel, full of bucketloads (or even Bucket-loads) of laborious foreshadowing: there’s no breezy cameo from a hot Grandpa Joe, a la Jude Law’s young Dumbledore, in tasteful midcentury knits.
Although The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey argues it’s still very Paddington:
Yet, Wonka’s inability to imitate its predecessor doesn’t feel like a failure when you consider this: it’s not so much a prequel to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as it is a companion piece to director Paul King’s two Paddington movies. Much like those genteel, ursine escapades – released in 2014 and 2017, respectively – Wonka is old-fashioned, cinematic magic writ large. It whips up wit, warmth, and the beloved memories of classics past: there’s a big dollop of Mary Poppins here, a little Matilda, some Oliver!, and, then, unexpectedly, a pinch of Les Misérables.
Entertainment Weekly’s Maureen Lee Lenker had no doubt Paddington maven Paul King could pull it off:
In many ways, Wonka is far more delightful than it has any right to be (and lightyears better than its dreadful trailers). But that goes to show that no one should underestimate co-writer and director Paul King, the man behind everything pure and good in this world, a.k.a. the Paddington movies. Much of those films’ earnestness, emphasis on kindness, and whimsy can be found in Wonka, even if the movie doesn’t approach that franchise’s level of emotional resonance. Still, Wonka shares a lot more with King’s affable sensibility than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl’s cynical approach (which, to be clear, is a good thing).
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich spots a perhaps accidental topicality in terms of Warner Bros. Discovery’s current big boss:
At the risk of overstating the political edge of a children’s story about an eccentric entrepreneur whose signature confections make customers float in the air before crapping live bugs out of their buttholes, there’s a delicious irony to the fact that Warner Bros.’ first big release since Discovery CEO David Zaslav (once again) canned a completed film in exchange for a $30 million tax write-off is an anti-capitalist fable set in a city run by a ruthless chocolate cartel who’ve diluted their own product in order to hoard the profits.
One semi-naysayer is The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. He slams what he describes as “strained whimsy,” and says Chalamet’s Wonka has two modes: “he’s either beaming with almost manic exuberance, as if willing us all to have fun, or pining away for the late mother (Sally Hawkins) who promised to be by his side when he realized his dreams.” Rooney concludes that “so much wide-eyed optimism becomes wearying, and the wistful memories of Willy’s mother, while beautifully visualized in photo flipbook style, are more sentimental than affecting.
Another is Variety’s Owen Gleiberman who calls Wonka “square” in its old-fashionedness, especially compared to more modern movie musicals like La La Land, In the Heights or even the 22-year-old Moulin Rouge!:
Yet I’d wager that it might have been an even bigger hit had it been a little less sanded off for children, and had it tapped more into the Roald Dahlness of it all (which was there in last year’s lively adaptation of Dahl’s “Matilda”). The movie’s songs, written by Neil Hannon, carry you along, though with more rambunctious energy than rapture — at least until you get to the iconic song reprised from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Pure Imagination,” which does a lovely job of tickling our sweet tooth of nostalgia. “Wonka” makes you feel good, but it never makes you levitate.
Deadline’s Pete Hammond basically agrees with Gleiberman’s “square” take, except he doesn’t mean it as a jab, calling it a “throwback to that kind of feel-good musical confection designed to be released during the year’s end.”
So which side will you wind up on? Are you a Paddington partisan who’ll leave charmed? Or will you wish you were watching Gene Wilder in the 1971 OG instead? You can find out when Wonka hits theaters on December 15.