By Dominic Broomfield-McHugh
How do you bring a film from more than half a century ago up to date for a society more tuned into the politics of representation? You won’t find out in “Wonka”.
The new prequel to the classic Gene Wilder film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) aims to tell the backstory of the magical chocolatier long before he encountered Charlie Bucket.
But in setting the dial at 1971, “Wonka” carries all the problematic cultural trappings of a film made for a different time.
At the start of the new movie, orphaned young Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) disembarks from a ship with 12 sovereigns in his pocket.
He soon loses or gives it all away and ends up locked into a contract, working to pay off his debt to a Dickensian hostel owner (Olivia Colman). There he encounters others in the same position, including Noodle (Calah Lane) and Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter).
He’s determined to open his own chocolate shop, but is thwarted by a cabal of three chocolatiers who have bribed the local police and clergy.
Such a straightforward struggle of good versus evil doesn’t make for much of a story, and the results often seem like a montage of clichés rather than a meaningful addition to the Roald Dahl original.
Hugh Grant plays an irascible Oompa Loompa. It’s a characterful performance, but it seemed unnecessary to bring back the idea of the Oompa Loompas, little people who in Dahl’s original 1964 book were black, then white in a new edition in 1973 and orange in the 1971 movie.
Since they were making up the new story from scratch, why bring back a character with such a fraught history at all?
It’s especially odd because the film-makers do seem keen to comment on serious topics, such as the corruption of the church and police, and the punitive enslavement of debtors.
There is acknowledgement of how capitalism makes the system unfair.
But there is seemingly no thought given to why it might be problematic to depict Loompaland as a generic exotic island where Wonka’s cocoa beans grow.
It doesn’t grapple at all with the relationship of all of this to enslavement in the history of chocolate production in the real world.
I know that “Wonka” is family entertainment rather than a history documentary, but the stories and images we grow up with influence our understanding of the world. “Wonka” does some finger-pointing (a delicious cameo from Rowan Atkinson as a chocoholic cleric) but hasn’t worked through its own complicity in the system.
The film’s saving grace is a charismatic performance from Chalamet in the title role. Still in his twenties, this impressive actor has an old-school lightness that makes his movement elegant and he brings a wistful quality to some of the film’s more poignant moments.
Christopher Gattelli’s lively choreography further makes Chalamet look like a Broadway pro.
The film is also easy on the eye. It’s beautifully designed and the location filming (including famous sights in Oxford) could hardly have set the whole thing up better.
Yet writer-director Paul King of “Paddington” (2014) fame hasn’t served up the goods this time (the screenplay is co-written by Simon Farnaby).
It’s a little too dark for small children (Wonka being threatened by a corrupt policeman who submerges his head into a fountain was a particularly disturbing image for the very young). And it’s not funny enough.
You know you’re in trouble when the most exciting sequence involves a CGI giraffe called Abigail – a clear sign that this was an underwritten screenplay for an excellent cast.
Nor is the score up to scratch. Songwriter Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy seems most at home in a terrific 1990s-style pop ballad called “A World of Your Own”, but it doesn’t have the poignancy of the stunning “Pure Imagination”, which returns from the 1971 Willy Wonka in the underscore of the opening and in full at the close of the film.
Its reuse at key moments, along with the old Oompa Loompa song, causes not only a stylistic clash with Hannon’s new efforts, but also draws attention to the lack of magic and originality in most of the new songs.
There are tired clichés (“cherry trees from Japan”, “a jungle in Mumbai”) and creaky attempts at made-up rhymes (“consonants” matched with “nonsen-ants”).
I imagine “Wonka” will be a hit over the holiday period, but when the central messaging doesn’t have enough clarity and the fun is in short supply, it’s not clear who this film is for.
It’s decent distraction for the kids over the Christmas break – but don’t expect the intergenerational magic of “Paddington 2”.
∎ “Wonka” is showing on the big screen nationwide.