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The Spirit of Chocolate Making Comes Alive in Prequel 'Wonka'

"So shines a good deed in a weary world."

When actor Gene Wilder embodied the classic Roald Dahl character of Willy Wonka in 1971's "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," audiences swooned for an idolized personality. Full of wit and wonder, Wilder's portrayal of the famed chocolate maker struck a sadistic tone. By the time 2005 rolled around and Johnny Depp took on the role of Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's spectacle "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," the character had become cartoonish and often childlike.

Now, Timothée Chalamet steps into the well-worn shoes of Willy Wonka in the musical prequel "Wonka," giving a more grounded and whimsical performance than his two predecessors. Directed by "Paddington" helmer Paul King, "Wonka" nourishes young Chalamet with a ton of room to grow into a character as beloved as Willy, delivering background information to how the self-described magician and chocolate maker came to be. But playing a known character is half the battle…introducing a new generation of families to a younger version of Willy Wonka sets up a grand adventure in discovering enchantment.

Before Charlie entered his life, before the golden tickets, the glorious factory, and the infamy, there was just Willy. Willy Wonka is a dreamer in his heart, believing he can change the world with his chocolate concoctions. He arrives by boat to a European city, is immediately imprisoned, and must work in a laundromat for several swindlers (Olivia Colman & Tom Davis). There, he meets young Noodle (Calah Lane), an orphan who becomes Willy's assistant. Power and deceit have taken over the city in an overwhelming way, with the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) and businessman Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph) among the most corrupt.

Through all this, Willy still dreams of owning a chocolate shop and enlists Noodle's help. He's also constantly battling with Lofty (Hugh Grant), an Oompa-Loompa with a grudge against the unconventional inventor. Inspired by his mother (Sally Hawkins) and her chocolate formula, Willy sets out to battle the chocolate cartel of the town and establish himself as the real deal. All while singing and dancing his way into people's hearts.

"Wonka" is a perfect holiday release for families looking to enjoy a lighthearted treat made of candied confections with a bit of eccentricity mixed in. Chalamet's take on Willy Wonka is more playful than scary or sarcastic, while the marvelous production design caters to a world begging for pure imagination. Heart-warming and a delight, "Wonka" is more kid-friendly this time.

It's kid-friendly and a bit hammy, to say the least. The movie works well within Roald Dahl's world, even though the songs are forgettable and the musical numbers are jarring initially. As the only Oompa-Loompa to take up space in this adaptation, Hugh Grant doesn't get the scene-stealing moments he typically deserves, while Keegan-Michael Key gives it his all each time he shows up. As the dishonest Chief of Police, Key seems to comically gain weight as he becomes more corrupt, supplying much-needed fodder to counteract Willy's motives. 

The backstory with Willy's mother doesn't stick the landing quite like the filmmakers intend, and the relationship between Willy and Noodle isn't as grounded in a mentor/mentee dynamic as Willy and Charlie are in the original incarnation. However, there's a lot to like about "Wonka," namely its fun approach to a character steeped in mystique and awe. The supporting players do their best to lift the story's dramatic angles, and Chalamet proves he can carry a flick with charm and positive thinking.

"Wonka" is not the most memorable holiday event of the season. It's more akin to a warm feeling while eating comfort food on a snowy winter's day.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟1/2


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