Movie review: Wonka offers golden ticket to pure happiness

Movie review: Wonka

Paul King, the director behind the warm and fuzzy Paddington movies, stretches a strong arm into the cauldron of modern chaos and pulls out a sweet, magical treat of a movie that affirms the power of a pure heart.

Wonka

4/5

Starring: Timothée Chalumet, Olivia Coleman, Gustave Die, Tom Davis, Calah Lane, Hugh Grant

Directed by: Paul King

Written by: Simon Farnaby, Paul King, Roald Dahl

Running time: 1 hr 56 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance

Opens Christmas Day in theatres

By Katherine Monk

Magic and chocolate… such is the stuff childhood dreams are made of. Roald Dahl understood  the giddy equation better than anyone since the Brothers Grimm, and the generations who grew up reading about Charlie, Willy Wonka and a magical factory grew up with a candied cannon full of colourful, and undeniably sweet, affirmations about the grown-up world.

Sure, the kid protagonist in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was poor, but thanks to his lucky encounter with a ‘golden ticket’ wrapped in a Wonka bar, he was given the keys to Wonka’s cocoa kingdom, and a safe, enchanted future.

Consider it the Cinderella story for the post-war generation, because, in essence, that’s exactly what Dahl’s creation is: a story of democratic enfranchisement through merit, perseverance and mutual human respect.

Charlie had to prove himself worthy: He had to demonstrate a love for his fellow man, not just chocolate. The message never gets old, but every once in a while, it needs to be repackaged — if only to allow an entirely new generation to be rapt by the redemptive power of a golden ticket.

Consider it the Cinderella story for the post-war generation, because, in essence, that’s exactly what Dahl’s creation is: a story of democratic enfranchisement through merit, perseverance and mutual human respect.

Wonka is the perfect concoction to meet this need. Not only does it re-introduce the charismatic chocolatier as a young man, it provides him with a wonderfully romantic backstory that is both fairy tale and modern nightmare artfully rolled into one.

Starring the ever-magnetic Timothée Chalumet as a young Willy Wonka, this new feature is billed as a prequel that takes us from Wonka’s early childhood, to his first job as a professional chocolatier. Seems linear enough, but thanks to the magic of this original screenplay and some musical inspiration in the form of song, Wonka doesn’t just tell a fantastic story, it puts you under a spell.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure people were capable of making movies with such a pure heart anymore. The last decade has pushed us into a dark corner of cynicism, distrust and war-induced world weariness that most “feel-good” movies feel little more than “meh.”

Wonka meets that jaundiced soul head-on in the opening frames as we watch a young, very naive, but very kind Willy seek his fortune in the big city. Full of dreams, hope and a hat filled with magic, Willy is a rube who relies on the kindness of strangers.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure people were capable of making movies with such a pure heart anymore. The last decade has pushed us into a dark corner of cynicism, distrust and war-induced world weariness that most “feel-good” movies feel little more than “meh.”

The only problem is people in the big city are not always kind. In fact, they can be downright predatory — like Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman). Owner and operator of a commercial laundry, Mrs. Scrubitt also operates a rooming house tailored to meet the needs of the unsophisticated and illiterate. She offers a room for one sovereign, but makes them sign a contract with hidden clauses in the small print, rendering them indentured servants for the rest of their lives.

Willy falls victim to the scheme on his first night, and is soon sent to the basement wash cauldrons, where he meets an entire community of similarly ill-fated souls who failed to read the small print and ended up as Mrs. Scrubitt’s slave.

One such prisoner is Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan with a gold ring around her neck and a heart as big as heaven. Noodle tried to warn Willy about the contract, but this young Willy is only good at making candy. He can’t read, making him the perfect target for the chocolate crime syndicate.

Indeed, just about everything that happens in this fairy tale European town is decided by the three big candy kings. Their names conjure the very face of real-world fascism (Fickelgrüber*, for instance), but the subversive script makes sure we don’t gag on the allegory.

Keeping us firmly entrenched in the magical world by ensuring every second of Willy’s alternately charmed, and frequently cursed, life experience is infused with a sense of the sublime, the movie never lets go of hope — or love for one’s fellow man.

That’s the beauty of Willy Wonka as a character, but also of Chalumet’s seemingly effortless portrayal. Willy never spoils. No matter how many terrible things happen to him over the course of this peppermint take on picaresque, he never succumbs to the darkness. Forever buoyed by the random beauty and the endless flavours of life, Willy finds something salvageable in every sour heart.

In short, he believes in magic because he believes in love, and that faith turns out to be contagious. Moreover, his naïveté in the face of evil is a large part of what saves his soul, and somewhat ironically, makes this film feel so fresh.

Untainted by twenty-first century sarcasm and social media-induced self-consciousness, Wonka tells an archetypal story with commitment and a brand of narrative discipline that seemed to disappear with our latter-day attraction to all things “meta.”

Not that Wonka doesn’t have a tart side, too. Thanks to Hugh Grant’s truly inspired take on the world of Oompa Loompas, Willy Wonka has an orange-faced foil who feels a need for communal retribution.

Not to be comically outclassed, Keegan Michael Key plays a corrupt cop who aids and abets the candy crime syndicate by keeping Wonka at the laundry cauldron instead of his own candy shop. Then there’s Olivia Coleman as Mrs. Scrubitt. A combination of Macbeth’s bubbling cabal and Dickensian trope, Scrubbitt is the embodiment of cold-hearted ambition — a morally bankrupt money launderer who imagines herself a social success.

The forces of evil are uniformly pathetic and comical, yet the film doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to sit back in the easy chair of emotional safety. We know Willy’s heart is good and pure. He is incorruptible, but the world around him is so corroded, so greedy and so impenetrably crepuscular, we’re constantly concerned about his survival. Willy is the embodiment of love, but the world is cruel — and it risks curdling his very soul every single second.

How he manages to keep his optimism, and his faith in humanity, feels like more than narrative convention. Thanks to the writers and director of this old-fashioned film with a smart heart of gold, Willy’s commitment to goodness feels nothing short of magical.

So if you’re looking to be rapt in chocolate and some warm fuzzy feeling, there’s a golden ticket to happiness in Wonka.

* Fickelgrüber is a nod to Adolf Hitler’s real name: Adolf Schickelgrüber

@katherinemonk

 

THE EX-PRESS, December 25, 2023

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Review: Wonka

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Summary

4Score

Starring the ever-magnetic Timothée Chalumet as a young Willy Wonka, this new feature is billed as a prequel that takes us from Wonka’s early childhood, to his first job as a professional chocolatier. Seems linear enough, but thanks to the magic of this original screenplay and some musical inspiration in the form of song, Wonka doesn’t just tell a fantastic story, it puts you under a spell. -- Katherine Monk

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