Wonka review: Chalamet a vast improvement on Depp’s creepy-crawly version in delightful adaptation

PG, 116mins

Olivia Colman: Having Timothee Chalamet play Wonka was ‘a stroke of genius’

Paul Whitington

Roald Dahl was not keen on adaptations. He roundly dismissed the now beloved 1972 film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as “saccharine, sappy and sentimental”, and reckoned Spike Milligan would have been a better Wonka than Gene Wilder. He’d certainly have made a madder one.

And Dahl liked his book James and the Giant Peach so much he refused in his lifetime to let anyone adapt it: after his death, his widow relented.

There’ve been numerous Dahl-inspired movies since, and all have struggled to capture that odd mix of magic, mischief, cruelty and snark that made his children’s stories so unique.

Has Wonka managed to channel the Dahl harrumph? Not exactly, for this Willie (Timothee Chalamet) exists in a heightened world of primal colours, flying chocolate-lovers and villains so fruity they’d be kicked out of a pantomime.

Perhaps the darkness will come if director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby are given a chance to remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which bitter tangs would surely be supplied by Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop, those nasty kids who did their best to rain on the parade of poor boy Charlie Bucket.

But Wonka happens before all that, when it’s Willie who’s finding his way in the world and has the arse out of his trousers.

Timothee Chalamet in 'Wonka'

Wide-eyed, gullible, endlessly optimistic, young Willie Wonka arrives in a grand and generic European city with a dream in his heart and ten silver florins in his pocket.

In a flashback, we discover that he was raised on a barge by his kindly mother (Sally Hawkins), who appears to be Irish (a relation of the Portarlington Wonkas perhaps) and taught him the secret ways of creating enchanted chocolate.

Sadly, she died, leaving her son with a shared dream of one day opening a chocolate shop.

Within the first afternoon, however, all those florins have been flittered away, and Wonka faces the prospect of sleeping on a park bench when a passing man (with a suspiciously scary dog) makes an apparently kind offer – a bed in a nearby boarding house, with the first night on credit.

The place is run by one Mrs Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), a Dickensian shrew with bad teeth and unctuous manner, who proffers a contract. Wonka doesn’t read the small print and wakes the next morning to find he’s been duped, now owes 10,000 florins he must pay off by toiling in a subterranean laundry.

There he meets Noodle (Calah Lane), an indentured orphan, and other inmates who’ve been similarly misled. But Wonka is nothing if not ingenious and soon comes up with a way of sneaking out and setting the whole town talking about his delicious and magical chocolates.

Before too long his dream of a shop seems within touching distance, but a greedy consortium of chocolate magnates – Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Fickelgruber (Matthew Baynton) and Prodnose (Matt Lucas) – will stop at nothing to foil Wonka and run him out of town.


Keegan-Michael Key makes an amusing appearance as a crooked police chief who’s bribed with chocolate till he balloons up like the Michelin Man and Rowan Atkinson plays a similarly compromised catholic priest.

The film’s frothy tone is exemplified by Chalamet’s Wonka, who blends humour, charm, grace and pathos in a note-perfect characterisation. As Willie is essentially a sexless man-child, romance is out of the question and instead it’s his avuncular relationship with the “urchin” Noodle that forms the film’s dramatic spine.

If it has one at all that is, because all concerned are having too much fun dreaming up this chocolate-mad burg to worry too much about the storyline.

The set designs are marvellous, the Neil Hannon songs pleasant and sometimes even memorable, and the playfully comic tone is infectious.

Olivia Colman has a high old time as the foul-mouthed harpy Scrubbit, who pauses from her various cruelties to enjoy a stomach-turning romantic interlude with her henchman Bleacher (Tom Davis).

And leave it to Hugh Grant to steal every scene he’s in as a well-spoken and imperious Oompa-Loompa.

In the Paddington films and especially Paddington 2, Paul King and Simon Farnaby achieved a higher plane of family entertainment that was altogether irresistible.

Wonka might not be quite that good but is thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless, and Timothee Chalamet’s Wonka is a vast improvement on Johnny Depp’s creepy-crawly version.

Four stars