Wonka: Just Another Modern Spin on a Well-loved Character?


Terri Wilkinson (she/her) shares her opinion on the new rendition of Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka

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Image by IMDb

By Terri Wilkinson

This film actually took me by surprise, and I genuinely found myself having a good time when watching it. Wonka follows the story of a young Willy Wonka as he struggles to fulfil his dream of sharing his chocolate with the world against the greedy Chocolate Cartel. Whilst this film may lack the universal appeal of childhood classics like Shrek (with its underlying adult humour), it was, to put it simply, good family fun.
To start off with some positives, Timothée Chalamet made a compelling young Willy Wonka. I had never seen him play a goofy, childishly naïve character before and I was pleased with the balance he was able to create, between a silly caricature and a heart-felt dreamer. Chalamet has been criticised for lacking the sinisterness or charm of earlier Wonkas (like Johnny Depp or Gene Wilder), but it is important to remember that he is playing a younger version of this character, and I felt his acting perfectly suited the performative element of the film. Other standout actors were Olivia Coleman as Mrs Scrubbit – a Mrs Twit – Trunchbull mash-up, whom she played with such melodrama and repugnancy that I found myself genuinely laughing at her – and Hugh Grant as an Oompa Loompa. Though there was some controversy around his casting since many felt the role should have been played by a person with dwarfism, I found his portrayal of an Oompa Loompa fun and humorously dry, which nicely complemented Chalamet’s goofiness. The set was also colourful and vibrant, which helped capture the magic and childhood wonder within the story. It certainly made me want to go home and eat a lot of chocolate afterwards!
Finally, I found the plot to be cohesive and fun. It wasn’t a ground-breaking, revolutionary story, but it didn’t leave any real plot holes. There was a nice element of sentimentality to it, along with some comedic danger, for example, when Wonka sees his mum after succeeding in sharing his dream. Ultimately, it was quite a childish plot, but that was who the film catered for, and I think, as a ten-year-old, it would have been very entertaining. It was a film that didn’t take itself too seriously, which was to its success and it played effectively into childhood themes, melodrama, colour, and a love of chocolate. 
On the other hand, as a musical, it was mediocre at best. Apart from the well-loved, iconic ‘Pure Imagination’ (originally sung by Gene Wilder in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), the songs were not memorable. Though they added to the overall performative, colourful tone of the film, it was not a show-stopping musical like The Greatest Showman, and perhaps, apart from a few TikTok sounds, they won’t really be remembered or loved. Likewise, the singing was alright, there wasn’t much range or complexity to the songs which easily masked the lack of singing talent with some of the cast members. The musical numbers themselves alongside the dancing were enjoyable, but the singing and quality of the actual songs undid what the dancing and colour were trying to achieve. Likewise, I found some of the jokes about class and greed surrounding the Chocolate Cartel (such Fickelgruber gagging at the word poor) to be corny, over-used, and generally lacking creativity. It was perhaps at these moments in the film I cringed the most.
Overall, it was far better than I had expected and, though I have my criticisms of it, the film was not meant for me. It knew its audience and catered specifically to them. I think, for a child, it was a thoroughly entertaining film and shouldn’t be lumped together with the awful remakes of the past 5 years. Whilst you may have your nostalgia for Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character (and it is perhaps hard to imagine how Chalamet’s naïve dreamer becomes the isolated, sinister genius of the other films) it is a good, standalone film that maintains universal themes of family, dreams, and of course, a love of chocolate.