A see-saw conversation has been burbling ever since Warner Bros first got properly stuck into this decent family entertainment. “An origin story for Willy Wonka? Who wants that? Wait now! The Paddington people, you say? Tell me more.”
What do you need to know? The director Paul King (writing again with Paddington 2′s Simon Farnaby) has brought the same visual flair, the same antique ambience and about 45cm of the same Hugh Grant to a film that, for all its raspberry-frosted professionalism, doesn’t quite find a reason to exist. The 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, whose soundtrack provides a leitmotif here, was initially not a huge success, but over the years it has become a bank-holiday favourite. Yet few would say they harboured unqualified affection for Gene Wilder’s eponymous chocolatier. He’s a bit of a cynic. He’s a bit creepy. He is blasé about risking the lives of ordinarily naughty children. Any tale of his early life could, surely, be subtitled Birth of a Psychopath.
Well, not at Christmas. The version here, a youthful chocolate prodigy in the surprising form of Timothée Chalamet, arrives merrily by ship to spread ingenuous joy about a quaintly snowbound fantasy city. He is kind. He is sweet. He is essentially a humanoid Paddington. Nothing about the current Wonka suggests any potential to grow into Wilder’s sly incarnation (still less the oily Johnny Depp antihero from 2005).
That doesn’t mean the film can’t work on its own terms. Team Paddington throw everything at the screen in an admirable effort to cute the world into submission. Our own Neil Hannon, emperor of Ulster baroque, has just the right angular energy for a musical – and it is a musical, despite what songless trailers may suggest – that takes in a substantial degree of sub-Dickensian macabre.
The supporting cast groans with great actors enlivening characters grotesque enough to justify Roald Dahl, late author of the source novel, remaining among the credits. Olivia Colman and Tom Davis pile on grease as hoteliers who trick visitors into indentured servitude. Paterson Joseph – Johnson from Peep Show – rolls his rounder consonants to emerge as the most delicious of three conspiring establishment confectioners. In the oddest role in an often odd career, Grant allows his head to be stuck on a smaller body as apparent chief of the Oompa-Loompas. Some activists have been annoyed that a little person wasn’t cast in the role, but it would be a shame to miss the sheer taste-defying wrongness of the creation. The character would not look out of place as a failed early experiment in The Fly.
All of which feels like a lengthy attempt to avoid talking about the lead. One can’t blame the studio for casting such a star in the role. But little about the late-millennial hipster recommends him to the role. Chalamet doesn’t have the brash zip of a showman. His singing voice is no worse than Wilder’s, but it lacks the ironic trill that compensated for the older actor’s limitations. He certainly gives no hint (to be fair, nor does the script) of the genuinely off-kilter oddball we know he will become. Thanks heavens for the discovery Calah Lane as his sidekick, Noodle. The Texan teenager really does have the moxy to succeed in musical theatre.
Wonka is not any sort of disaster. It is made with enormous professionalism. It abounds with good nature. And it does offer at least one fascinating titbit about the protagonist’s background. Sally Hawkins, his mother in flashbacks, speaks with some sort of Irish accent. Wonka is one of us, should we laugh or cry?
Wonka is in cinemas from Friday, December 8th