Friday 8 December 2023

Pick 'n' mix: "Wonka"

It is, at the very least, better than the trailers suggested. For fullest enjoyment, you will need to pop Wonka into your mouth, roll it around and let it dissolve on your tongue; it is a film that begs to be noisily and messily slurped down rather than nibbled away at, which is why the thin-sliver approach of those promos released so few endorphins. The indulgence of the viewer is not only welcomed but relied on: director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby have bet $120m, and the goodwill the pair accrued making the Paddington one-two, on us needing or wanting to know what Willy Wonka was doing before becoming the kind of entrepreneur who repeatedly makes unpunished attempts on the lives of young children. In truth, Wonka struck me as far more forced than either of the merrily self-contained Paddingtons: towed out into the mid-Atlantic geographically, in an effort to get the Yanks interested, and spiritually into territory that appears Potter-adjacent. Lots of production design; a magician hero; the ranks of BAFTA who didn't get the call first time round; a script geared towards setpieces and spectacle rather than narrative continuity or logic. Wonka isn't as consistently funny as the Paddingtons were, and the latter films' sugar has been replaced by generic sweetener, again seemingly to appease the American market: I don't type this lightly, but the overall effect is like alternating mouthfuls of Hershey's and Cadbury's, which soured the experience a little for me. Still, even as his budget has tripled, King has held onto a measure of his earlier work's charm, light sprinklings of magic, and - well - 'tis the season for indulgence after all. Given that our multiplexes are otherwise reliant on an Aquaman sequel to tide them through until New Year, an easily swallowed snack like this will do - and will have to do.

King and Farnaby load this project like a selection box. This is a bittier film than their previous collaborations, and you find yourself having to pick and choose what to savour and what to overlook upon unwrapping. It's an agreeable start to envision Wonka as an egalitarian dreamer (played by our old friend Little Timmy Caramel), penniless when first we meet him, who comes to outrage the corrupt chocolate establishment with his plans to sell nice things to the poor - making him part Potter, part Jack Monroe. And King visibly adores stocking these universes with the choice supporting players now available to him: Paterson Joseph, Matt Lucas and Mathew Baynton as that same elite, Tom Davis and Olivia Colman as very Dahlian boarding-house proprietors, Jim Carter heading up an underground laundering operation. At one point, we even find ourselves watching a Chalamet-Phil Wang duet, which - after the Miles Jupp cameo in Napoleon - suggests the cinema really is spinning off its axis now. (If Paddy McGuinness turns up in the new Coppola, we stay home for good.) By contrast, the Neil Hannon-Joby Talbot score - for, yes, this is also a musical, in large part - presents as a natural extension of the pair's Divine Comedy work. Wonka feels altogether less forced whenever somebody bursts into song, because these songs have been written in a specific idiom by a single voice, and are no more American - or Americanisable - than, say, "National Express" or indeed "My Lovely Horse". In other words: you find things to enjoy, even if you have to go rummaging for them.

But there are coffee creams, too. I went into Wonka in a state I shall generously describe as Chalamet-agnostic, still unconvinced the actor is anything more than the pre-Raphaelite Scott Baio, an okay theatre kid overpromoted amid a generally impoverished age for American leading men. I am afraid to report I left the cinema in much the same state, only now wondering whether King, out of the goodness of his heart, offered this thin slip of a thing the part with an eye to feeding him up with all the on-set candy. Chalamet is never as engaging or magnetic a Wonka as this scattered movie needs: all sweet, no shade, he goes after the songs like a refugee from Glee, but otherwise pitches up within a fingertip of insipid. He comes momentarily to life in the character's duels with Hugh Grant's digitised, diddified Oompa Loompa - the latter attempting to reclaim his land's cocoa, like the Greeks with the Elgin Marbles - but pairing Wonka with an orphan sidekick (Calah Lane) looked to me another example of how King and Farnaby's exuberant gifts for mischief and invention have been sacrificed to a much flatter earnestness. (It's a throwback to a sappier strain of family entertainment.) Weirdly, we come away from this origin story knowing more about supporting characters' backstories - right down to the thwarted lovelife of Farnaby's security guard Basil - than we do about Wonka himself; the CG Paddington was a more completely rounded character, which would seem to indicate some degree of mission drift. There's enough activity going on around this central void for Wonka to endure as the big hit of Christmas 2023, and to have persuaded some colleagues that it stands as an instant classic: you will, I concede, get to see Rowan Atkinson pursued by a ravenous giraffe, and only a heart of steel could completely take against King's final squirt of syrup. But it's the '71 movie - as cruel, strange and imaginative as Dahl himself, with God-tier work from Gene Wilder; a classic despite itself - which remains the gold-bar standard. By comparison, Wonka is all a little... funsize.

Wonka opens today in cinemas nationwide.

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