18 dec 2023

Is Wonka the perfect Christmas treat or too sugary?

Out in theaters on Wednesday 13th of December 2023, Wonka stars Timothée Chalamet as the young chocolatier once played by Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Is the film a perfect Christmas treat or too soppy and sugary?

Each year, December comes up as the month dedicated to the most unapologetically soppy movies and Paul King’s Wonka is a perfect example. The film’s soundtrack composed by Neil Hannon and sung by the entire cast – especially by Timothée Chalamet – sets the story in a light-hearted, upbeat mood right from the opening scene. As the lead singer of these musical interludes, Willy Wonka takes us back to a distant, imaginary time, dressed as a cartoon character with his frock coat, top hat, elegant scarf, and patent leather shoes.


Wonka: the perfect cinematic Christmas treat?


Presented as a prequel to Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Paul King’s musical looks back at the childhood and youth of the famous chocolatier and inventor Willy Wonka, a mischievous character imagined by novelist Roald Dahl in 1964. It features all the sweets and chocolates that fill his whimsical world, from candies that make those who eat them fly away to confectionery that causes uncontrolled hair growth. The plot unfolds in a magical setting, in a city covered in snow and lit up with colorful lights at the crossroads between Oxford and Paris. For all these reasons, Wonka is the perfect cinematic Christmas treat. It is “scrumdiddlyumptious”, as the characters like to say.

An endearing and cheerful Timothée Chalamet as Wonka


Played over the decades by an attractive Gene Wilder in 1971 and then by a strange Johnny Depp in 2005, Willy Wonka is one of those emblematic characters, who are difficult to portray with accuracy without incurring the wrath of the critics. The risk with Paul King’s Wonka lies in his desire to tell the story of the early days of Roald Dahl’s chocolate maker while following in the footsteps of the first two films that have forged his success. The choice to turn to Hollywood’s new darling, Timothée Chalamet, is a double-edged sword. While his mischievous smile reminds us of Johnny Depp, the young Franco-American actor adds a sparkle to the character’s eyes and a welcoming endearing pout.


Avoiding the risk of being reduced to a bland copy of the Willy Wonka from the 2005 film or a remake of the one from the 1970s, Timothée Chalamet plays a cheerful young apprentice chocolatier, full of tenderness and generosity toward people,and especially toward the wrong people. Illiterate, clumsy at best, but convinced of his own success, Timothée Chalamet’s character is an endearing and somewhat candid chocolate maker, handing out many sweets and songs about childish life lessons.

Wonka by Paul King: a prequel light years from Tim Burton’s universe


Paul King’s feature contains a lot of songs… perhaps a little too much. For those expecting to discover a prequel to Tim Burton’s whimsical and obscure universe, this new Wonka is light years from it. While there are obviously a few dark aspects and gloomy characters, the film led by Timothée Chalamet often feels like a marshmallow as a whole – too watered-down and too sugary. Willy Wonka’s original story has been revised and portrays him as an orphan clinging to the emotional memory of his mother. It is a far cry from Tim Burton’s character who hates his father and can’t pronounce the word “parent” without throwing up. In this new opus, there is none of the troubling yet appealing je-ne-sais-quoi that used to attract us in the universe of the American director behind Corpse Bride.


But there may lie the key element of Paul King’s interpretation He has never drawn his inspiration from Tim Burton, but rather from the 1971 first adaptation, from which he has copied the Oompa Loompa, the little, bloodthirsty, orange-skinned creatures played here by a laughable Hugh Grant. In fact, the director has declared in several interviews that he imagined himself being in Roald Dahl’s head to create that prequel, wondering how he would have written Willy Wonka’s childhood. It’s a successful gamble, since the director incorporates just the right amount of cuteness and fun to appeal to children, while cleverly keeping an element of darkness through ambivalent and malevolent figures, such as a grotesque innkeeper played by Olivia Colman or a greedy policeman played by Keegan-Michael Key.


Like the sordid and enchanting world of the Netflix series A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017-2019), Paul King’s universe is far from disappointing, filled with characters on the verge of the absurd, who never seem to listen to the little voice in their head that usually reasons their actions. In short, Wonka is a thrilling film that will for sure get a few laughs out of the biggest audiences.


Wonka (2023) by Paul King, out now.