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  • Nate Adams

'Wonka' review: Chalamet tries conjuring a world of pure imagination


Courtesy of Warner Bros.

 

An interesting confection that has the benefit of director Paul King, the filmmaker who destroyed our emotions in both “Paddington” features, “Wonka” thrives on aesthetics but lacks in execution. 


Headlined by Timothée Chalamet as a singing, tap-dancing Willy Wonka, “Wonka” is set years prior to Charlie Bucket finding his precious golden ticket, Augustus Gloop drowning in a chocolate river, or Violet Beauregarde’s wild transformation into a life-sized blueberry, and instead finds the eccentric chocolatier trying to make a name for himself in the cutthroat world of candy entrepreneurship. It’s light and fluffy enough to where it should have no problem entertaining families as the de-facto theatrical outing this holiday season, though its true purpose and overall intentions, plus an uneven performance from its lead star, renders “Wonka” a mild disappointment.


“Wonka” thrives when it's paying homage to the 1971 Gene Wilder classic. Wilder he is not, Chalamet still tries his darndest to keep this wobbly movie afloat, but his singing skills, despite being adequate, probably aren’t as delightful as many had envisioned. At least it’s not in the same league as whatever Johnny Depp was doing in the 2005 Tim Burton version (which, for the record, I did not hate like so many others did). Sadly, the new songs by composer Neil Hannon simply don’t have the juice and it’s not until we see a rendition of “Pure Imagination” late in the film does it find some rhythm. Which is ironic for obvious reasons. 


Outside of the musical aspect, the rags-to-riches story of Wonka becoming a household name in the Roald Dahl universe has some spark. The movie opens with him stepping off a boat, singing about “a hatful of dreams,” and filled with determination. For Willy, it’s not a matter of if he will succeed, but when. Of course, we know the outcome, but the character has to face some adversity, or else why even make the movie? 


Aside from running into trouble with a shady boarding house owner played by Olivia Colman, one of several recognizable English faces, alongside Sally Hawkins and Rowan Atkinson, you’ll see throughout the movie, Willy’s major obstacle consists of a villainous trio of chocolate makers. Led by Paterson Joseph’s appropriately named Slugworth, they see Wonka’s emergence as a major threat to their chocolate empire and they use various resources, including a local, sweets loving, police chief played by Keegan-Micheal Key to try and dwindle his spirits. 


Elsewhere, there’s a side plot involving a young girl named Noodle (Calah Lane) who is misplaced and without a home that never makes a case for its existence, and Hugh Grant infuses the movie with a jolt of energy every time he shows up on screen playing a heavily CGI’d Oompa Loompa. Trust me, I am as shocked as you are. 


And yet, “Wonka” never quite musters the enchantment you’d expect from the iconic character. Chalamet is a terrific actor, but his sensibilities and choices throughout the picture are confounding and never seem authentic. He’s got the spontaneous nature of Mr. Wonka’s personality locked down, but during the film’s calmer moments, the emotional levity steers away from him. There’s still enough playful moments and clever creations (the third act in particular is a hoot) that make it worth a trip to the movies, just make sure the little ones know which adaptation did it better. Maybe show ‘em that one instead. 


Grade: B- 


WONKA opens in theaters everywhere Friday, December 15th.


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