The New Willy Wonka Prequel Is Fun, but It Doesn’t Hold a Candle to Its 1971 Predecessor

In Wonka, Timothée Chalamet dons the eccentric chocolatier’s purple jacket in yet another film adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This one is playful and harmless, but it can’t touch the 1971 original movie.

Timothée Chalamet as the titular character of Wonka. (Warner Bros., 2023)

My prayer going into Wonka was “Oh please don’t let Willy Wonka be portrayed as just a nice young man with big dreams.” So of course, that’s exactly what we get in the new musical prequel to the 1971 classic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, in which Timothée Chalamet takes on the title role. But an important correction — Chalamet’s Willy Wonka is a nice young man with big dreams and floppy hair and large melting eyes so that young women can sigh over him, and that’s the demographic driving the movie’s strong box-office numbers.

It hardly matters to Chalamet fans that he can’t really sing or dance, though this is technically a musical. His sweetly aspirational Wonka first comes ashore clinging to the mast of a ship and breaking into a dull song about hope (or something) in an uncertain, quavering tenor. In general, the new songs are terrible, except for a mildly amusing, energetic one called “Scrub It.” It makes for a sad comparison with the quite memorable one from the original 1971 version, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, which included “The Candy Man” (a big popular hit for Sammy Davis Jr), “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” “Pure Imagination,” and “The Oompa-Loompa Song.”

It’s impossible to watch a character named Wonka wearing a top hat and colorful velvet frock coat and not to be haunted by Gene Wilder’s brilliant, superbly confident portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel that’s defined the character for decades. Wilder played the role like a man possessed of a vision. It was Wilder who came up with the main action of Wonka’s introductory scene, featuring the reclusive chocolatier emerging from his factory before cheering crowds that go silent as he limps stiffly and solemnly down the red carpet, leaning on a walking stick that is revealed to be a comic prop when he suddenly does a brisk somersault and rises with a smile on his face.

Wilder wanted to define his slightly scary genius character by his complete unpredictability, and the somersault was only the start. What children’s film has ever featured a more acidly ironic central character, or one with a greater indifference to children’s safety? We never do find out for sure, in the 1971 film, how many of those awful kids with golden tickets actually lived through their tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

It was actually very astute psychologically, though. Children do find adults strange and unfathomable, often very erratic creatures. But at the same time, an entertaining and inventive and humorous adult can seem like the best friend a kid ever had, and Wonka combines all those qualities.

Writer-director Paul King, of the Paddington films as well as the cult-favorite comic fantasy The Mighty Boosh, doesn’t even attempt to portray young Willy Wonka as someone who has the combustible qualities of Wilder’s Wonka already in him. Presumably that was ruled out from the start. So what’s the source of fascination used to replace a mesmerizing Wonka in this version?

A two-ton truckload of plot. People like that amount of plot these days.

For starters, plot-wise, we find out via flashbacks that Wonka was trained to be a chocolatier by his understanding mother (Sally Hawkins), as they traveled around by boat in search of amazing ingredients. After her death, young Willy expands his exotic travels, and finds even more far-flung substances, such as the four cocoa beans he takes from Loompaland. That unfortunately turns out to be the entire crop, which incurs the wrath of the Oompa-Loompas, who send a small orange-faced, green-haired avenger after him. He’s played by Hugh Grant in a comically snitty Brit performance being used to sell the movie.

By making the representative Oompa-Loompa character quintessentially upper-class British in language and affect, Paul King is presumably trying to dodge the ugly colonial aspect of the Oompa-Loompa characters as written by Dahl:

In Dahl’s original, the Oompa-Loompas were starving African pygmies, subsisting largely on a mash of green caterpillars and tree bark until “rescued” by Willy Wonka. He smuggled the entire tribe out of Africa in packing crates to live and work, and sing and goof and dance, in the chocolatier’s plantation, er, factory.

“It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist,” Dahl said in a 1988 interview. “But it did occur to the N.A.A.C.P. and others.”

The 1971 filmmakers also made major changes to the Oompa-Loompas’ background story and appearance, adding the orange faces and green hair Dahl hated, but that persist in this new version. Though Dahl would presumably have loved this new film’s character of the corrupt chocolate-addicted policeman played by Keegan-Michael Key, who keeps taking chocolate bribes and growing more enormous in each scene. Key is terrifically talented, with wonderful timing, like most of the comic actors in the film who are struggling to elevate the relatively weak material. Rowan Atkinson plays a corrupt priest who houses the three colluding chocolatiers in town (Paterson Joseph, Matthew Baynton, and Matt Lucas), in the church guarded by five-hundred chocolate-addicted monks. If you’re waiting to see the big action scene based on that promising description, though, forget it — Wonka never fights five-hundred chocolate-addicted monks. What a wasted opportunity!

Not knowing that he’ll be going up against an entire chocolate cartel, young Willy Wonka arrives in a city resembling a fantastical version of nineteenth-century London, where he aims to set up a chocolate shop. But he’s a naive fellow and is immediately scammed out of his little bit of money. Soon he falls into the greedy hands of Mrs Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman) — a riff off of the seamy Mrs Lovett character in Sweeny Todd — who gets Wonka to sign a room-rental agreement in exchange for a place to stay on credit. He’s warned by Mrs Scrubitt’s scullery maid, Noodle (Calah Lane), to “read the fine print.” Wonka pulls open the accordion-pleated document loaded with legalese, which is a reference to the contract in the 1971 film that Wonka makes all the children sign before they can enter his chocolate factory. Only, in that version, the writing is literally on the wall. It starts off large and legible but gets so steadily smaller none of the “fine print” language can be read by two-thirds of the way down.

In this new version, Wonka signs the deal because, as we eventually find out, he’s illiterate. That’s a strange, pathos-ridden plot point that allows Noodle to bond with him while teaching him to read. Her plotline is something about her missing parents, her apparent abandonment at Mrs Scrubitt’s, and her mysterious heritage that’s left her with a necklace bearing the letter N, a Dickensian device that will surely lead her to at least one illustrious parent in the end.

Having signed himself into indentured servitude in the basement of Mrs Scrubitt’s washhouse, Wonka joins various other enslaved characters who will comprise his team of helpers in making his chocolate shop dream come true. There’s accountant Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), Lottie Bell the former telephone operator (Rakhee Thakrar), Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher), an unfunny would-be comedian, and, uh, a couple of others I can’t remember.

If these characters don’t sound especially striking, you got the right impression. They’re so nonstriking, in fact, that in the end of the film, they get written out of any sequels. If a film franchise emerges out of Wonka, presumably only Chalamet in the title role and Hugh Grant as Lofty the Oompa-Loompa are welcome back.

So it’s all a little dull, with everyone being so blandly nice except for the Rogue’s Gallery of villains, who are so villainous they make Snidely Whiplash seem subtle. But what the hell, it’s the holiday season and people have to watch something. There are some funny bits here and there.

At least, you might say, pointing out the bright side, Chalamet’s affable young Wonka couldn’t possibly age into Johnny Depp’s bizarre, Michael Jackson–inspired version of the character from the 2005 Tim Burton adaptation. If you keep that in mind, things are really looking up with this new version!