Review: Wonka


As I was leaving my screening of Wonka, my friend was commenting about how you don’t see musicals quite like that anymore. While I don’t entirely agree with her, I do have to admit that musicals like the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are hard to come by, ones that are aimed directly at children and are designed to supercharge their imagination. There was a sense of wonder and magic to that film that’s hard to replicate, mostly thanks to the skills of Gene Wilder as an actor, so any attempt to replicate it seems a bit of a lost cause. How can you possibly compete with the original film? It was a lesson that Tim Burton learned the hard way with his more cynical remake, but now we have a prequel by Paul King that aims to capture that same style that made the original so captivating.

To his credit, Paul King knows that he can’t possibly compete with the Mel Stuart classic, so he tries to do his own thing and channel some of that Paddington charm. At times, the film is perfectly sweet and delightful, never quite surpassing the whimsy and pleasantness that embodied Paddington 2, but still doing a good job. But then there are plenty of moments that feel artificial and inauthentic, almost as if the film is forcing us, as well as itself, to believe in all of the wonders that are on screen. It’s a weird movie to watch, but one that I think does a decent enough job of living up to the legacy of Roald Dahl.

Wonka | Trailer #2

Director: Paul King
Release Date: December 15, 2023 (Theatrical)
Rating: PG

Since he was a boy, all that Willy Wonka (Timothee Chalamet) wanted to do was to make and sell chocolate in honor of his dead mother (Sally Hawkins). He eventually is able to make his way to an unnamed city that contains the Galeries Gourmet, which hosts the most prestigious chocolate shops in the world, with the dream of opening his own shop there. Unfortunately, he’s kicked out by the aristocratic chocolate store owners who call themselves the Chocolate Cartel. Due to this turn of events, he accrues a ludicrous debt at a boarding house, compliments of one Olivia Colman, and has to work his debt off. With the assistance of a young orphan named Noodle (Calah Lane), who is also in extreme debt, as well as the others who were forced into indentured servitude by Olivia Colman, Willy Wonka tries to make a name for himself, all the while doing what he can to overcome the aristocrats that make up the Chocolate Cartel.

Paul King is great at making family-friendly films and from beginning to end, Wonka is a film that’s entertaining for all ages. While there may not be some of the darker elements that were present in the original story, what replaces it is a sense of wonder that will crack even the most jaded cynic. From the first time Wonka is debuting his chocolate, you’ll be entertained alone by the visuals and creativity on display. This movie tries so hard to sell this idea of Willy Wonka as a creative spirit and I think from a production standpoint, the film nails it. All of Wonka’s gadgets and tools are quirky and neat and his ability to make people smile is somewhat infectious.

That is, the character as he’s written will make people smile, rather than Timothee Chalamet’s performance. Chalamet, at times, sells this idea that he’s this young wide-eyed optimist with a hint of eccentricity to him, but usually, it feels like he’s just playing a character. He never comes across as an actual person and feels almost too idealized and perfect for his own good. It’s like Chalamet is playing the concept of Willy Wonka but not understanding that Willy Wonka wasn’t always just this bright-eyed perfect soul.  But that’s what he is in the movie and after a while, Chalamet’s constant saccharine attitude becomes a bit too grating. It’s like Chalamet, as well as King to an extent, gloss over the fact that Willy Wonka was bitter and aloof in the original story, not really interested in what happens to other people. So seeing this Willy Wonka care a ton about people and the idea of family feels a bit disingenuous.

Review: Wonka

Copyright: Warner Bros.

Wonka tries desperately to paint this idea that its world is like a live-action cartoon. From the over-the-top reactions to the running jokes, there’s an air of levity to nearly every major beat in the film. Even the sadder moments are prefaced with goofy moments of comedy, like when Wonka’s store opens and the Chocolate Cartel sabotages his debut with comedic gags. Most of the time I’m okay with this approach, but after a while, you start to see how some of these moments simply feel forced. When Wonka and his friends are discussing how they’re going to take down the Chocolate Cartel, they go into detail about all of the insane precautions that the Cartel put in to guard their secret stash of chocolate, but it becomes too ludicrous to the point where it seems to almost parody itself. There are corrupt priests, a secret cult, a security guard with martial arts training, and a Chief of Police who gets fatter the more he’s bribed. At some point, enough is enough and it becomes tiring.

One thing I never got used to is the film’s overreliance on CGI. Nearly everything uses it, from the various chocolates to the effects it has on people, to how it helps visualize all of Wonka’s dreams and ambitions, CG is EVERYWHERE in Wonka. None of it ever meshes with the world and it makes you very aware that the entire cast is interacting with nothing. This is especially true for Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa, which comes across as embarrassing most of the time. Hugh Grant is a great actor and I know he has kids to feed (he admitted as much during the press tour for this film) but there’s no getting around that this is a career low for him. Though if it’s any consolation, he admits that he hated doing this film, so at least I feel slightly vindicated in my criticisms.

It’s also pretty obvious that the film has some truly terrible ADR. The very first scene of the movie begins with a musical number that doesn’t match up with Chalamet’s mouth movements or match his volume, and that extends to every song in the film. The songs are pretty okay, with “You’ve Never Had Chocolate Like This” being the best song in the film, but the smaller and more intimate numbers are ruined by how obvious the dubbing is. Moments like when Wonka and Noodle are bonding over milking a giraffe (don’t ask) aren’t as effective when you can tell that they weren’t even together when they recorded their lyrics. It just pulls you right out of the experience once you realize how fake it all is. But then again, as someone who loves musicals and notices these things, that probably isn’t going to be an issue for more casual audiences.

Review: Wonka

Copyright: Warner Bros.

For as much as Wonka talks about imagination and the joys that it can bring, that wonder is only apparent because of Paul King. I can’t stress this enough, Paul King’s direction elevates the movie a lot. Without his unique charm via cinematography, editing, and writing, I wouldn’t be recommending this film in the slightest. He’s really a master at creating these family-friendly adventures that have a lot of moving parts that somehow are still easy to follow. Never once did I feel like it was hard to keep track of the ever-growing list of side characters and subplots since they all naturally flowed into each other. Wonka isn’t going to win any awards, but I can’t deny that by the time the credits rolled, I had a warm fuzzy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I think that the biggest thing that holds Wonka back is that it’s too idyllic and pure for its own good. It tries to live up to this idea of what Willy Wonka has become in popular culture, so it attempts to make the entire film reach for those unrealistic, and frankly inaccurate, heights. When the film inevitably fails to reach those peaks, then you start to notice all of its flaws, like the ever-present CGI, Timothee Chalamet’s unconvincing portrayal of Willy Wonka, and the obvious ADR that sucks you right out of the experience. If you don’t really notice those things or aren’t bothered by them, then Wonka will be a satisfying watch that will put you in a feel-good mood for the holiday season.




Wonka may not be perfect thanks to its rampant CGI and misunderstanding of its main character, but Paul King's direction really does a lot to make this feel like a fun family adventure.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.