In general, the prequel is a horrible thing, stripping interesting characters of mystery or, at worst, ruining the very thing that made them great (see Maleficent turning a classic villain into a bland goodie, or the Star Wars prequels giving us Darth Vader’s whiny roots). Wonka is the vanishingly rare prequel that gets it right. Paddington director Paul King’s take on the pre-chocolate factory life of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka doesn’t attempt any shocking retconning or sly winking. It simply feels like an extension of the world Dahl created, full of charm, hissable villains and pure imagination.
It begins with Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) arriving in its unnamed metropolis – cosily Dickensian and ever dusted with snow – clutching a jar of sweets and a dream of opening his own chocolate shop. His plan is immediately scuppered by two things: first, a scheming innkeeper (Olivia Colman, splendidly chewing the scenery with yellowed false teeth) who tricks him into a life working in her laundry, and a trio of chocolate magnates (Paterson Joseph, Mathew Baynton and Matt Lucas) who don’t want Wonka on their patch. With his brilliant mind and endlessly upbeat outlook, Wonka devises elaborate plans to best them all and bring his chocolate to the masses.
King, again working with Paddington co-writer Simon Farnaby, has such a strong sense of tone. As with Paddington, he keeps it wondrous but with the slightest edge of sarcasm. His camera dances through elaborate musical numbers and delights at Wonka’s inventions, but he never lets it get sugary and earnest. There’s always a little sharp note to cut through it, most notably whenever Hugh Grant’s Oompa Loompa is on screen, a cross little man who’s no time for Wonka’s whimsy. There will surely now be studios tumbling over themselves to persuade King to direct their family franchises. His ability to make the nostalgic feel modern is unmatched.
It could very easily become regarded as a festive classic
Chalamet makes a terrific Wonka, possessed of a creditable singing voice (Neil Hannon’s original songs are a joy) and a complete lack of concern about looking silly. There’s innately something simultaneously innocent and slightly haunted about Chalamet, which proves the ideal combination here.
If this isn’t quite the pitch perfect creation Paddington was – there are some thin sketches in the supporting cast and times when the plot mildly sags – it’s not far off, and it’s much better than it has any reason to be. This has the warm, cosy sense of a film that, even with its few flaws, could very easily become regarded as a festive classic.
In UK cinemas now. In US theaters Dec 15.